Saturday, 6 September 2014

Prison Pests (1): The Pad Thief

It is a fact of prison life that many inmates are dirt poor. They come into the nick penniless and throughout their sentence they will struggle to do much more than survive, particularly if they smoke burn (rolling tobacco) as an estimated 80 percent of adult male prisoners do. That’s why the temptation to thieve from fellow cons can prove so strong and it’s also the reason that pad (cell) thieves are so universally detested in the slammer.

In the spotlight: pad thieves
In this era of overcrowding and chronic shortages of staff, there are often very few jobs available, so those lads who are unemployed will have to get by on £2.50 a week – so-called ‘bang-up pay’ – out of which either 50p or £1 will be automatically deducted for the rent of the ageing in-cell TV set depending on whether they are in a single pad or are ‘two’d up’ (sharing). Facing up to 23 hours per day locked in a concrete box on £2 per week watching The Jeremy Kyle Show isn’t my idea of a luxurious lifestyle, no matter what the Daily Mail would have us believe.

Of course, it will be argued that cons receive free board and lodging. True – unless, of course, they are maintaining innocence and eventually get their convictions quashed on appeal. Then they will have to pay 25 percent of any compensation awarded back to cover the costs of their wrongful imprisonment. British justice, you’ve got to love it: those Appeal Court judges really know how to kick a man when he’s down.

Anyway, let’s get back to the main subject in hand. In my experience, there is no ‘typical’ pad thief. They come in all shapes, ages and sizes. I’ve encountered well-spoken ones and friendly ones, as well as dimwits who are so useless at thievery that they are always going to get caught. That’s probably why they are in jail in the first place.

However, the most prolific pad thieves tend to be younger lads who have absolutely nothing and no-one on the out. Often their families – assuming they ever knew them – have long since abandoned them, so they get no financial assistance whatsoever. Not even an occasional letter or a birthday card. Inside the nick these feral kids, many of whom also have various addictions, resort to whatever survival methods they can to get by, including nicking from other people’s cells or even from their own pad-mates. Believe me, anyone who really thinks that the old myth about ‘honour between thieves’ is true should spend some time on a prison wing.

Locker: target for pad thieves
Most cons consider pad thieves to be low lifes, for obvious reasons. If you already have very little in the way of personal possessions, then you tend to guard jealously what you do own. In this kind of environment, just giving or loaning something to a friend – against the Prison Rules, of course – can be a big thing, especially when you may only earn £8 a week even if you have a job or are on an education course. Loyal mates are worth their weight in gold in the slammer and I’ve shared cells with a couple of lads that I still consider to be as close as my brothers. I would definitely give them my last Rollo (not that you can buy them on the canteen sheet).

However, chronic pad thieves can be a plague on any wing or unit. Anyone who looks too intently through the open doors of other people’s cells as they wander along the landings is liable to come under suspicion. Are they actually casing the joint or looking for an opportunity to swipe something of value? 

Prisoners are justifiably suspicious of other cons, particularly those they don’t know well. Let’s be frank, quite a large proportion of inmates are in jail because they can’t keep their grubby hands off other people’s property – and that applies not only to burglars and robbers, but to professional types who have had their fingers in much bigger and deeper tills, often with far less justification of hunger or poverty. Mind you, these cons tend not to need to resort to pad theft since they usually get regular cheques and postal orders sent in from home.

In prison, there is the additional problem that if you’ve been robbed by a sneak thief you can’t really scuttle off to the wing screws bleating about it. That way lies the path to being recruited as a ‘grass’ (informer) and even the merest suspicion of that can have far worse consequences than just having had a pouch of Amber Leaf burn or a container of Lynx shower gel nicked from your pad. That’s why some cons prefer to take matters into their own hands.

Had a little accident, have we?
Since pad thieves are such a problem for everyone, whenever one gets caught in the act, or is found to be in undisputable possession of someone else’s gear, retribution is often swift and agonising. The traditional, time-honoured method is to hold a thief’s fingers on the jamb of a cell door when no screws are nearby and then get a mate to kick the heavy metal door shut. Result: broken fingers and a speedy visit to healthcare to get them patched up, followed by a rapid move to another wing or down to the Block (segregation unit) prior to a transfer to another nick.

Kangaroo courts are sometimes held behind closed cell doors when a suspected pad thief has been apprehended. During these nasty affairs the UN Convention Against Torture is likely to be ignored and the suspect’s muffled screams can always be drowned out by turning up the music system. I’ve heard that some enterprising cons at one nick even rigged up a primitive type of rack using a metal-framed bed on which ‘offenders’ could be persuaded to confess their crimes against other cons before being branded using a piece of coat-hanger wire heated over a disposable cigarette lighter. Very messy.

Difficult to get rid of a bad reputation
Occasionally, a pad thief will get his face slashed with a cell-made ‘shank’ – prison razor blades melted into the plastic handle of a toothbrush or a similar item. However, this punishment would probably be considered a bit over the top for mere pad thieving, unless the item stolen was considered particularly valuable or the thief had been very prolific.  

I’ll give you just one example from a D-cat (open prison). We had a very articulate, seemingly well-educated young lad arrive on the unit. He was serving an Indeterminate Sentence for Public Protection (IPP) for repeated street robberies with violence when he was barely out of his teens. He was also – although none of us knew it when we first met him – a total kleptomaniac. I’ll call him ‘Nathan’, although this is not his real name.

Nathan combined undeniable charm with an irresistible urge to steal anything and everything, whether or not he actually needed the item. If you were unwise enough to invite him into your pad, he’d assess the situation in seconds and later in the day you’d find that something was missing. It could be a refill pouch of Nescafe coffee, a carton of milk, a bar of chocolate or a pen. Nothing was safe.

Sometimes his thefts were just so brazen that even old blaggers (armed robbers) were impressed. For example, he’d cadge a cup of tea or coffee and then wander off with your mug, promising to return it later. Needless to say, later never came, and when you tried to pin him down, he was adamant that he’d already dropped it off. At times, you started to doubt your own memory.

Never quite so obvious
He was so good at burglary that no-one ever seemed to catch him in the actual act of theft from another con’s pad. Leave a ground floor window open in the summer? Nathan would be in and out like a flash after nicking your t-shirts and shampoo. Pop down the wing corridor to the hot water boiler to fill up your thermos flask and foolishly leave your door open for a few minutes? He’d be in and help himself to all your weekly canteen purchases. The trouble is, no-one ever saw anything and he was just so plausible and innocent-looking that it took us all weeks to finally point the finger of blame in his direction. Yet proving it was another thing and we didn’t really want to get involved with torture racks and branding in the 21st century.

In the end, Nathan’s final downfall came as a result of his mounting debts to other cons. He was a habitual user of steroids and had developed an impressive physique. This habit cost money – big money – and to feed his ‘sted’ addiction he was constantly borrowing, then ducking and diving to avoid paying up even though his long-suffering girlfriend on the out was sending him in £25 a week. Eventually, his credit had dried up across the nick and trouble was brewing. His creditors were getting restive.

In his desperation he persuaded a fellow prisoner that this guy’s pad mate had told him to go and collect some burn he was owed – a total lie. Once inside the lad’s cell, Nathan helped himself to several ounces of rolling tobacco and a package of prescription medication from the locker and then disappeared off to settle up some pressing debts. As soon as the victim realised what had happened he confronted Nathan. A fight ensued and this alerted the screws to what lay behind the punch up.

Not welcome on the wing
Shortly afterwards, a very downcast Nathan was observed in handcuffs pushing all his worldly goods on a prison trolley towards Reception. He had been busted and was being shipped out to closed prison. Other cons – victims of his thefts and borrowing – lined the unit corridor cheering and cat-calling as he went, something I’ve rarely ever witnessed in jail.

Being transferred back to a B-cat prison when you’re on an IPP sentence means at least another two or three years on top of the sentence already served. It represents a massive knock-back and Nathan knew it. At that point he made another enormous and irreparable error of judgement. 

In a desperate bid to save himself from years more jail time he asked the Reception screws if he could speak to a senior officer. He then ratted out everyone else who was involved in the drugs and steroids rackets, as well as offering to be the true lowest of the prison low: an official grass – if only he’d be allowed to stay at the open prison. This act of treachery didn’t save him. The senior screw just wrote down all the names of the other sted-heads and stoners and then slammed the holding cell door in his face.

What Nathan didn’t realise was that all the cons who worked as orderlies in Reception were listening to every single word of his betrayal from the next room. Since they worked there they knew exactly which nick he would be heading off to in the GEOAmey sweatbox (prison van). 

The covert communication system between prisoners is pretty efficient, so by the time young Nathan arrived at the B-cat prison that would probably be his home for the next few years, word had already gone round – probably via carefully phrased phone calls to wives and girlfriends – that a wannabe ‘super grass’, debtor and pad thief was about to land on the wing. I’m sure all the other cons there had prepared a very warm reception for him. 

We never heard anything about him again. I suspect he is still serving a very lonely sentence in solitary confinement down the Block, either at his own request or else on a ‘Good Order and Discipline’ ticket for his own safety. And you can be sure that he’ll carry that reputation with him for the rest of his life in prison: a pad thief – and a grass.


  1. Very good stuff Mr Cavendish and you certainly know your way round Blogger better than I do! Could I make a subject request please? I'd be very interested - and so would my readers I think - in your honest unvarnished thoughts, experiences and opinions on probation, the service and individuals. Or maybe you've written it and I can't find it?

    Keep up the good work - I think it's by far the most informative and balanced blog on the subject.



    1. Hi Jim,

      Thanks for your comments and compliment. I'm aiming to inform about prison and prisoners, as well as entertain, so happy to oblige as long as I can find interesting topics and responses to news.

      I have previously posted about the subject of recall - Harder Time. It's the sixth icon on the Popular Posts list on the right-hand side of the blog, but I do need to do something about being on licence, so that would include views on Probation, POs and the TR issue.

    2. I too, would like to thank you for taking the time and trouble to write this blog. It is a pleasure to read.
      I have searched your previous posts and one subject seems to have been omitted - prison food. If I have used the wrong search criteria, I apologize in advance.


    3. Hi Peter,

      Thanks for your kind comments. Prison food - including what we were fed in the Block - will be on my to do list! Thanks.

    4. Hi Peter,

      As promised, the post on prison food is up today. I hope you find it interesting and informative.


  2. Probation, Prison Officers and what's the last one? Temporary Release?

    1. I've already posted a couple of times on ROTL, but will be returning to this topic soon owing to the impact of the new NOMS rules.

  3. Just checked TR, it's Transforming Rehabilitation

    1. Sorry, it's just those bloody acronyms. Prison and Probation are full of them! I normally remember to spell them all out for people not inside the system.

  4. As someone who has never been inside, I am surprised you manage to hang on to any personal possessions at all if you have to leave your cell with the door unlocked. Is your "locker" lockable?

    I would imagine there are problems keeping any personal papers away from prying eyes too, even if they aren't nicked. Did you make notes for this blog while you were inside, or is it all from memory? Either way, It's a great read.

    1. Thanks for your comments and the questions. There are pretty detailed and strict limits what you are allowed to have as private property 'in possession' as it is called.

      Everything except consumables from the canteen sheet and your prison-issue kit has to be recorded on 'prop cards'. These start when you come into custody from court and follow you around from prison to prison. Some nicks allow certain items, others don't, although this is getting less common after they issued a new National Facilities List back on 1 November 2013 in a bid to standardise the whole system.

      Some C-cats and all D-cats (open prisons) issue cons with what is called a 'courtesy key' for your own cell door, although it in C-cats you can only open the door from the outside to go in. Once it is shut, it's locked and you can't open it yourself. D-cats just have small rooms with normal doors and windows (no bars).

      Security of property is generally more of a problem in closed prisons because you can't just close your door when you pop out down the landing or go to take a shower. If you do, then it needs a screw to come and open up again. We solved the problem in shared cells by trying to make sure that we took it in turns to stay in the pad, ie by staggering taking showers, making phone calls etc.

      Some prisons do supply small lockable lockers and issue a key. In our D-cat we even had small hotel-style safes (mainly to store medication) in each room, although quite a few were broken or had missing keys. Unfortunately, one B-cat didn't have any lockable lockers and there was a serious problem with thefts.

      Paperwork isn't so much of a problem, mainly because pad thieves are after tobacco, canteen goods and clothes such as t-shirts and trainers, either to wear or re-sell to other cons. I started writing when I was in my first prison, initially in a diary and then as the basis for a future book. When I finally got to an open prison I started taking draft chapters home with me when I had temporary release on leave for a few days each month.

  5. Very interesting, and very surprised that pad thieves would put themselves in such danger just for a bit of burn or a chocolate bar.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Sadly, prisons contain a significant number of people who make very poor life choices, hence their current predicament. Also, desperation fuelled by addictions and dependencies can take a very heavy toll inside the nick and for that reason cons often demonstrate risky behaviours that can lead to serious injury or worse.