It is an undeniable fact that prisons stink. Anyone who has been on a prison wing knows that there is a peculiar smell of captive humanity: male sweat, stale cigarette smoke from cheap tobacco, bad plumbing, festering dustbins, a hint of urine, unwashed socks. Imagine a rugby club changing room on a hot summer’s day and you’ll be in the right sort of ballpark area.
You first get a sense of what is coming from the prison transport or ‘sweatbox’ that will take you from court to the jail to which you’ve been assigned in your capacity as a newly minted convict. These vans are operated on contract by private sector firms such as GeoAmey, G4S or Serco.
Cons can end up being locked in sweatboxes for many hours both travelling to and from court and between prisons. My personal record in a sweatbox was six hours non-stop, although we did halt at another nick to pick up a couple of other transferees. The escort staff weren’t in any hurry, so we were all just left locked in our little boxes in the sun in the August heat as the temperatures soared. On occasion, inmates can also be sick during the journey and I’ve had the unpleasant experience of being in a sweatbox with vomit running down the gangway and under the cubicle doors.
But that, dear reader, is just the antechamber of hell. The real fun starts when you get to the prison itself. The institutional smell of caged human males hits you as soon as you get onto the residential wing.
|Mopping the wings|
Prisoners, just like members of the public outside prisons, come in a range of types. Some are fastidiously clean and ensure that they and their cells are spotless; others are much less so, rejoicing in nicknames such as ‘Dog-end Dave’ (who used to collect roll-up nubs on the exercise yards to remake into the cheapest kind of ciggies for resale to other cons) or ‘Sid the Binman’ (so-called because of his habit of rummaging through the wing rubbish bins in search of anything that might be recycled and/or sold).
For cons who prefer the cleaner things in life – and I like to think that I’m one of this number – it would have been unthinkable not to have had a daily shower, unless the prison was on lockdown. Our pads (cells) were mopped out regularly and the in-cell WC and sink were washed down daily. Occasionally, I even cleaned the windows panes between the bars.
|Sealed windows in cells|
One of the greatest fears for most cons is to have a real stinker of a pad-mate imposed on you: someone who neither washed themselves, nor their clothes. This only really happened to me once, for a single night, but I’ve heard tales of woe and misery from mates who haven’t been so lucky.
The worst fate was to have to share a cell with another con who was incontinent or who wet the bed pretty much every night. Believe me, this is not so unusual as you might think in an adult prison. Some inmates suffer from serious health conditions, others are heavily medicated (on prescription or otherwise) and so just sleep through anything, even the need to relieve themselves. Others have terrible nightmares, often related to childhood abuse, and these sometimes lead to nocturnal accidents.
I remember one saint of a bloke who shared with a young prisoner who had learning difficulties. He had grown up in an abusive local authority children’s home and he regularly wet his bed. Most cons would have requested a swift cell move. A few would probably have beaten the lad senseless every time it happened. This man helped the kid strip his bed every morning and would even assist him in approaching the ‘cleaning officer’ – the daily duty screw responsible for the state of the wing – to get the stores opened so he could get clean sheets and blankets.
|Prison bedding from the stores|
Occasionally, wing officers could be less compassionate. I’ve come across cases of prisoners being forcibly stripped and hosed down with cold water from fire hoses in shower blocks because their personal hygiene left much to be desired. In most instances, the cons on the receiving end of this ‘treatment’ – which was intended as much as a punishment as a cleansing operation – had serious mental health problems or learning difficulties.
The shortage of prison issue clothing hasn’t helped in matters of cleanliness. I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about the problems of forcing male cons back into prison uniforms when the shelves in the stores are almost empty. Having men wearing the same set of issued jogging bottoms, boxer shorts and t-shirts for days or even weeks at a time doesn’t make the average prison wing smell any better.
Most closed prisons have a specific day for putting out washing so it can be taken to the laundry. Some have special arrangements for washing prisoners’ own clothing (assuming they are being allowed to have any in possession), either in smaller laundries on the wings or down in the main one.
Of course, if you want your clothing washed property using decent washing powder purchased yourself from the canteen sheet, then there is a price to pay. Working in a prison laundry is a brilliant opportunity for a bit of profitable private business on the side. The usual tariff was a can of tuna (£1.10) or a couple of bars of cheap chocolate (50p each).
|The price of clean washing|
Almost everyone moaned about this, and almost everyone paid up. The sheer indulgence of getting your clothes back smelling fresh and neatly folded – rather than smelling of everyone else’s dirty socks and screwed up into damp balls straight from the tumble driers – was a guilty pleasure for which most of us were willing to pay.
Newly released prisoners often talk or write about “scrubbing the stink of prison” off as soon as they get out. I’ve spoken to quite a few ex-cons who have shared this sentiment. You just want to get into a proper hot bath as soon as you get home and soak yourself. If they can afford to do so, quite a few prisoners ditch any clothing they have had with them inside because it is difficult to ever completely remove the smell of the nick. You may be able to wash off the smell of prison, but you can never ever quite forget it.