I’ve been asked by a reader of this blog to explain the difference between the various security categories of prison in the UK. So here goes.
The current four-tier system was set up following a review of prison security under Lord Mountbatten back in 1966. His inquiry followed the highly embarrassing escape of the Soviet spy George Blake from HMP Wormwood Scrubs earlier the same year.
As things stand there are currently four specific categories into which adult male prisoners are placed shortly after conviction:
|George Blake: one who got away|
• Category A: Prisoners whose escape would be highly dangerous to the public, the police or the security of the state, no matter how unlikely that escape might be
• Category B: Prisoners for whom the very highest conditions of security are not necessary but for whom escape must be made very difficult
• Category C: Prisoners who cannot be trusted in open conditions but who do not have the resources or will to make a determined escape attempt
• Category D: Prisoners who can reasonably be trusted in open conditions
Since 1987 Cat-A prisoners have been graded into three further levels: standard risk, high risk and exceptional risk (sometimes called ‘triple A-cats’). Convicted terrorists usually get top billing. If one of these guys ever escaped, it would probably be a resignation issue for the Prisons Minister, plus various governors and security chiefs.
I’ve been a B-cat, a C-cat and a D-cat during my time as a prisoner, so although I can give first-hand views on these levels, I’ve never been an A-cat con. However, I have shared pads (cells) with former A-cat men – lifers who have been “on the book” as it’s sometimes called – so I’ve picked up some information along the way from them.
|HMP Belmarsh: London's high security nick|
From what I’ve been told – somewhat paradoxically – A-cats can sometimes have much more internal freedom within their housing units, although their movement off the wing is much more carefully controlled at all times. They are always accompanied by a security file – “the book” – in which all their movements and all other relevant issues are recorded. Hence the term “being on the book”, or “being taken off the book” (re-categorised).
However, in what I can only suppose is an effort to mitigate the rigours of life imprisonment, A-cats report that they get access to kitchens so they can prepare their own meals and various other privileges or perks that mere B-cats can only dream about. A couple of lifers have told me (at some length, sigh!) just how much they missed being A-cat men. By the time they eventually reached the dizzy depths of being D-cats, nothing was ever as good as it was when they were still “on the book”.
|Cat-A: high walls, razor wire and dogs|
Of course, how A-cats live within the high security estate is largely dictated by the level of individual risk they are deemed to pose. Some of these cons are only allowed out of their cells when a specific number of screws and a wing manager are present. This can be what is called “four man unlock” or “three man unlock” and so on. Some of these lads are what an old lag I got to know referred to as “right naughty parcels”… meaning very bad or highly violent cons.
As one of my ex-pad mates – who had been on the book for some years – once remarked, the thing with high security jails is that things can go from “quiet to riot” very quickly. Some lifers, particularly those who haven’t much realistic prospect of ever getting out before they are in their 90s, really don’t have much to lose, so a disrespectful word or a failure to acknowledge someone on a landing can trigger a bizarrely violent overreaction. As my pad-mate observed: “If I reckoned someone was trying to mug me off, I’d have to have the cunt!” Fortunately he had calmed down a lot by the time we got acquainted in a Cat-D.
A-cats get their security status reviewed by the Director of High Security Prisons. If refused re-categorisation to B-cat, they can get referred to the Category A Review Committee. For some lifers and very high-risk prisoners, this can prove to be a very long process. I know two lifers who have taken over 30 years to progress from A-cat to D-cat and they still haven’t really got a prayer of being released on parole. Some lifers are lucky if they ever make it to B-cat or C-cat. And remember, these guys are not ‘whole life’ tariff prisoners – there are currently around 55 of them – who have been sentenced to die in prison.
|HMP Rye Hill: a Cat-B private nick|
Below the Cat-As are the Cat-Bs. Now I spent some time in Cat-B nicks, so I do know a bit about these establishments. There are Cat-B locals and Cat-B trainers. Locals are prisons that take people directly from court or hold them on remand awaiting trial. Pretty much everyone who gets sent down by a court will end up in a Cat-B local for a while until their security categorisation has been confirmed. A few cons may be made ‘provisional A-cats’ prior to conviction and sentencing – mainly people charged with murder, kidnapping or terrorist offences.
A Cat-B training prison pretty much does what it says on the tin. It accommodates cons who mustn’t be allowed to leg it over the wall in any circumstances and is supposed to offer some form of vocational training or education. To be honest, I really couldn’t tell the difference between a Cat-B and a Cat-C prison other than there were fewer screws present on the wings at the latter establishment! Oh, and I had one less bolt on the outside of my cell door.
Someone once described the difference between a Cat-B and a Cat-C as being that Cat-C nicks are just miles outside towns in the middle of nowhere. I’d say that was a pretty fair assessment, based on my own experience.
For B-cat prisoners, the main objective behind getting re-categorised to C-cat is in order to achieve what is called ‘sentence progression’. This is really crucial for lifers and those serving an Indeterminate Sentence for Public Protection (IPPs) – sometimes cruelly nicknamed ‘plastic lifers’. Without getting to a Cat-D (open prison) they really don’t have much hope of convincing the Parole Board that their risk can be managed in the community. Time spent in a Cat-D increases their chances of getting recommended for release on life licence.
|HMP Stocken: Cat-C prison|
For most other cons who are serving determinate (fixed-term) sentences, the re-categorisation process is less essential. I’ve known B-cats being released from those nicks straight back onto the street without ever getting their C-cat, let along their D-cat. Of course, licence conditions might be much tougher, including a requirement to reside in supervised ‘approved premises’ – that is, a hostel – for a period of time after release.
All prisoners whose sentence is four years or over will have their security classification reviewed annually. If serving less than four years, then it should be reviewed every six months.
In my naivety, I actually assumed that getting my C-cat would mean being transferred to a much better nick where I would enjoy more freedom. How wrong I was. I still ended up languishing in a Cat-B nick for a further six months and was then shipped off to a Cat-C in the middle of nowhere.
OK, I did get a much better job – paying the princely sum of £18.00 per week – in the Education Department, but otherwise the nick was if anything even tighter on security than the Cat-B. Instead of being on a large wing of 180 cons, we were locked down on small spurs accommodating around 60 lads. We had less exercise, reduced access to the gym and much more intrusive body searching than we did at the Cat-B.
The only other bonus – not to be underestimated – was that instead of the usual open plan WC in each cell we actually had a proper en-suite in a tiny separate room. Believe me, after having had to take a crap in front of another bloke for a couple of years, that was a major improvement in the quality of life. Beyond that, Cat-C was a bit of a disappointment.
|Cat-D: no more handcuffs: yippee!|
When I finally got my D-cat status – after three appeals – the difference was astonishing. No more handcuffs. No more bars on windows. No more locked doors and – no more cells. We all started out in small shared rooms and after about nine months or so you got a single room – assuming you had your Enhanced status within the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) system.
In a Cat-D nick you usually work unsupervised. After about three months you can apply for Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL) to visit the local town on your own and eventually you may get to go home for a few days each month to help prepare you for release. Some D-cat prisoners get voluntary work in the town with local charities; a few even get paid work, although 40 percent of any earnings above £20 per week (and after tax and NI have been paid) gets deducted and donated to Victim Support under the provisions of the Prisoners’ Earnings Act (1996).
|Escape list: a 'banana suit'|
You can always tell those cons who’ve just arrived at a Cat-D prison for the first time. They look nervous and can’t really believe that there are no walls or fences keeping them inside any more. If they wanted to, they could just leg it over the hills and far away.
In fact, most lads who are daft enough to try to do a runner get caught within a matter of hours. I recall one who was found sitting on the platform at the nearest railway station waiting for the London train. Then it’s back to a Cat-B nick and at least a few more months on top of their existing sentences. If they are really unlucky they could end up on the E-list (escape risks) and have to walk around in a green and yellow clown suit all day, while getting stripped naked when they are in their cell every night. Not a barrel of laughs, really.
So there, in a nutshell, are the various Cats in the UK prison system. Having experienced three of the four security levels myself, I’d say that the only significant differences are between Cat-C and Cat-D prisons. My advice is to give them all a wide berth, if you possibly can.