Monday, 19 January 2015

101 Things to do in a Cat-B Cell

I was asked recently by a blog reader to provide an insight into what there is to do in a typical Cat-B cell during 23-hour bang-up. This regime is becoming more and more common these days owing to a combination of staff shortages and overcrowding on the wings.

'Purposeful activity' in a cell
By pure coincidence, I was back in a Cat-B nick about ten days ago visiting a mate. I explained what I was planning to write and I asked him for some ideas. 

He looked at me blankly for a moment and then said: “I wake up, I shit and shave, I watch TV, I collect my lunch and eat it. Then I sleep or read until the evening meal is served. I eat it, watch TV and then I sleep. It’s like Groundhog Day without the happy ending.”

He’s actually quite fortunate as he has a job as the shower cleaner on the wing. This means that he gets out of his cell for around an hour in the morning and another hour in the afternoon in order to mop the shower room. Because of this job he also gets a single cell – a real luxury in most nicks these days. He generally doesn’t bother with 30 minutes exercise around the yard, mainly because the weather is so cold at the moment and since library visits haven’t happened for weeks, he has largely given up on reading. 

In many nicks association periods are mainly spent queuing to use the wing payphones or getting a quick shower. Some Cat-B locals also only allow one evening association session per week for each landing.

“What do your readers actually think cons do in a cell?” he wanted to know. 

“Well, I suppose they are trying to picture themselves in your position and to try to understand how you pass your time,” I replied. 

He laughed. “It’s going to be the most boring blog post you’ve ever written!”

A typical shared cell
Anyway, based on the discussion we had in the visits hall, we put together this list for the average 23-hour day behind the cell door. He doesn’t smoke and neither do I, but 80 percent of adult male prisoners do, so we decided to add that to the list. We also opted to leave out anything related to drug use, mainly because neither of us have ever taken illegal substances, but I suppose that for many cons that is also a central feature of their day in the slammer.

We also omitted self-harming, which for a significant number of inmates is the only way that they can cope with the stresses of their own sentences. As HM Inspectorate of Prisons has noted in some of its recent inspection reports, it’s also how many prisoners attract official attention when prisons are so short of staff that only self-harmers are noticed or referred to mental healthcare.

There are only so many games to play
In a shared cell, of course, you can also talk – assuming you and your pad-mate have anything worthwhile to say to each other. You could also play cards, if either of you owns a pack (£1 on most canteen sheets) or a board game, such as chess or Scrabble, if you have one in possession. In reality, the longer the sentence, the less you really feel like playing board games. Alternatively, if you and your cell-mate don’t get on then you can both stew in tense silence or finally snap and start fighting each other until the general alarm gets sounded!

So here is our list. Sadly, we didn’t make it to the magic 101…

1. Sleep
2. Lie in bed
3. Lie on the bed
4. Get off the bed
5. Make the bed
6. Roll a cigarette
7. Smoke a cigarette
8. Get dressed
9. Eat breakfast (small packet of cereal with carton of milk)
10. Make a cup of tea (five prison tea-bags issued per day)
11. Wash up the bowl
12. Wash up the mug
13. Urinate
14. Defecate
15. Wash in the sink
16. Shave
17. Clean teeth
18. Clip nails (as required)
19. Clean the cell with a dustpan and brush
20. Read a book (assuming you have one)
21. Read a newspaper (assuming you order and pay for one)
22. Watch TV (assuming you’re not on Basic regime)
23. Listen to music (if you have a radio or CD player)
24. Write a letter (one free letter per week)
25. Read a letter (assuming you’ve received one)
26. Fill in menu sheet (once a week)
27. Fill in laundry list (once a week)
28. Fill in canteen sheet (once a week)
29. Write out a general app (application form)
30. Sit and wait for a screw to open the cell door for showers (three times a week)
31. Sit and wait for a screw to open the cell door and use the wing payphone (twice a week)
32. Collect sandwich for lunch
33. Eat sandwich
34. Collect hot evening meal
35. Eat meal
36. Wash up plate and plastic utensils
37. Watch more TV
38. Look out of the cell window at the wall outside
39. Get undressed
40. Get into bed
41. Masturbate (optional – and easier in a single cell)
42. Try to sleep again despite the shouting and screaming around you
43. … er, that’s about it, folks!

One of the frequent claims made by politicians is that prison life should be all about “purposeful activity”. This can include participation in education, offending behaviour courses, vocational training or work. Successive prison ministers have demanded that cons shouldn’t simply “sleep through their sentences” or watch TV all day.

The punishment of daytime TV...
While there will always be a fair number of prisoners who would prefer to sleep in their bunks for most of the day, in my experience the majority actually want to be doing something, even if it’s cleaning the landings, doing a bit of painting, working down the stores or in the laundry, or in the kitchens or serving food. Others genuinely want to participate in education classes to start catching up on basic literacy and numeracy that they missed out on as children, while some are keen to gain vocational qualifications that might help them find employment when they’ve been released.

Current overcrowding means that there are far too few work and education placements to go round. When it comes to the best prison jobs preference is often given to those prisoners who are serving longer sentences so will be around longer once they’ve been trained up as orderlies, so cons on shorter sentences may not be considered when a vacancy arises. At present the default setting seems to be human warehousing with little or no chance of “purposeful activity” of any description.

Hopefully, between us – an ex-prisoner and a serving con – we’ve managed to answer readers’ questions about life in a Cat-B cell on 23-hour bang-up. Apologies if you found this blog post boring, but just imagine how much more boring it is to be locked in your cell day after day, week after week and month after month.


  1. What about collecting your cereal and milk? Do cons clean their cell windows? You didn't mention cons talking to or checking on their pet fly or whatever.

    1. You left out brushing hair and squeezing spots...

    2. Thanks for the questions. In most closed prisons cereal and milk are collected the night before when prisoners get their evening meal, so there's no unlock for that. Some cons do clean the inside of their windows, but most don't in my experience.

      Some long-term prisons (mainly Cat-As) do permit cons to purchase budgies, and cages for them, but this is an expensive option. I've known inmates feeding birds such as pigeons from their windows, but not keeping flies or spiders as 'pets'.

      Most male cons either crop or shave their heads - minimises the chance of lice and cuts down on the need to buy shampoo! A lot of prisoners do get terrible spots and other skin complaints since it can be very difficult to keep clean and healthy in some nicks!

  2. No doubt in Grayling world this all passes for purposeful activity given that its the only sort of activity provided by the prison service these days. Not quite sure how it is supposed to rehabilitate anyone though. Even the women's estate, where HMPS has always made more of an effort to get the women into purposeful activity as they are more prone to self harm than men (statistically), is failing to do so especially in local prisons like Holloway and Eastwood Park where 20/23 hour lock up is becoming increasingly common due to staff shortages. Mind you, Holloway, the most dysfunctional prison in the female estate, has always been prone to locking women up 20 hours plus a day even when fully staffed because it simply doesn't have enough work or educational places for the number of inmates. This is basically down to incompetent governor after incompetent governor who have all failed to deal with the situation with any kind of sense. Killick's been in post for several years now and absolutely nothing has changed for the better since the previous governor's tenure despite her constant babblings about change, rehabilitation etc.


    I know you've touched upon mental health issues amongst prisoners in previous posts but I am curious to know if you have given any thought to the fact that an awful lot of people who may not have suffered from mental health issues prior to going into prison find themselves suffering from depression, PTSD, unable to deal with any kind of stress well and other issues as a result of being incarcerated. As we always used to say, if you don't have any kind of mental health issues going into prison, you probably will by the time you get out!

    Given that ironically there is more mental health support in prisons than there is in the community these days due to budget cuts (or at least there was when I was inside) this is a huge worry for people who find themselves adrift and suffering with mental health problems when they get out with few if any resources to help them deal with what they experienced in prison.

    1. Thanks for your comments and question. Your observations on women's experiences are always very welcome because this blog tends to focus on the male estate as this is where my own experiences of prison took place. I've often thought it would be great if a female former prisoner launched a parallel blog! Just a thought...

      Your observation about insufficient work and education places is very important, particularly in this era of overcrowding. It is sometimes forgotten that even if prisoners are 'paid' a pittance for working or studying, this still has budgetary implications. There are only so many work assignments available and this number doesn't seem to have increased even when some prisons are hundreds of cons over their normal certified accommodation levels. This inevitably means that many prisoners won't find work or education places even when they are desperate to do something productive.

      With regard to your final point, I have occasionally mentioned the risk of some prisoners developing mental illnesses during their imprisonment in my early blog posts back in July 2014. However you are quite right, there are significant numbers of people who don't have mental health problems when they enter prisons who eventually leave with depression or PTSD. I've found that these conditions can be triggered by assault (including sexual abuse), bullying, witnessing extreme violence or the suicide or self-harm of fellow inmates.

      In most prisons there is no support for cons in this position, so they often take mental health problems back into the community on their release, thus causing further stress and grief for them, their families and wider society. The failure of the Prison Service to address mental health is one of the most serious ticking time bombs under the entire system.

    2. I am the perfect example of someone who went into prison with zero mental health problems and came out with severe anxiety, heart palpitations and recurring nightmares of what I witnessed in prison. I was in Bronzefield and only inside for 6 weeks yet so much damage to my mental well being. Even worse now I'm dealing with the neanderthal system of probation with an officer who has judged me even more than the judge who sentenced me. I would really like to know more about how people cope with supervision while on licence. Thanks, Vaishalee

  3. So much for working 8 hrs a day. This govt is full of bs. Rehabilitation is just pure bs. I hate this nasty govt. Vas

    1. Labour made it worse in the first place.

    2. Thanks for both comments. What is certainly true is that no government in recent years has covered itself in glory when it comes to our prisons. We should never forget that it was David Blunkett, the Labour Home Secretary, who introduced the appalling Indeterminate Sentence for Public Protection (IPP) - a source of continuing misery and overcrowding across the prison estate. Despite the fact that even he has denounced the impact of the IPP as "unjust", his successors have failed to address this continuing injustice, regardless of whichever political party they represent.

      Whoever takes over in May is going to face the prospect of a meltdown in our prisons in the aftermath of Chris Grayling's incompetence and idiocy. To be honest, I'm really not optimistic for any quick fix in the near future.

  4. Apparently a percentage of cons CANNOT be rehabilitated, others DO NOT want to be rehabilitated and the rest ARE rehabilitated...

    1. Thanks for your comment. In my own experience, rehabilitation is a state of mind. No prisoner was ever rehabilitated unless they made that decision for themselves. What our current prison system fails to do (as the reconviction rates highlight) is to provide a supportive environment in which those cons who DO want to be rehabilitated can make progress. This failure basically means that the Prison Service is not doing what it states in its own mission statement - and is funded by the taxpayer to do.

      Since so many prisoners also suffer from mental illnesses, its unlikely that without appropriate assessment and care their conditions will suddenly disappear, particularly in what is a very stressful and sometimes dangerous environment. When we closed the psychiatric hospitals we just displaced people into our criminal justice system - especially our prisons, rather than give them proper care back in the community.

      Moreover, since so many offences are related to drug use or possession, the current easy availability of drugs (legal and illegal) throughout our prison wings does absolutely nothing to help those who want to get clean and stop using. It's rather like putting a person who really wants to quit smoking in the middle of a warehouse where 80 percent of the inhabitants are smokers and half of those are offering ciggies at every turn... the expected outcomes are never likely to be good. In fact, if anyone manages to quit at all its pretty close to being a miracle!

      I think I can honestly state that I do not know one single ex-prisoner from any of the establishments in which I served time who was rehabilitated due to the prison regime. Those who have made it often struggled against official inertia, bureaucratic obstruction, lack of interest from the administration and prejudice against those with a criminal record on the outside.

  5. I'd like to add a few more in-cell activities. There is the 'window warrior' somebody who holds a conversation after bang up with another in a cell nearby. Basically just shouting out of the window much to the annoyance of the rest of the wing. Or, taunting folk somebody on another wing nearby.

    In cell cooking was quite common - making flapjacks or chocolate cornflake cakes. It's amazing what can be created using free issue prison 'food' and a kettle.

    I was surprised at how many made some really intricate items from matchsticks (matchsticks, glue, sandpaper, cutters and varnish available to order from the canteen). Picture frames, ornaments even ash trays were produced. Sometimes to order, some for personal use or to be sent out to family or friends.

    When prisons are supposed to be rehabilitating criminals it's tragic that with many banged up all day they have to resort to such activities just to keep themselves occupied. Even 'purposeful activity' when an inmate actually has a job for some of the day is a misnomer - so many guys have jobs that there is actually no work to do when at work but it improves the establishments figures of having people out of cells. Sat around, chatting, playing cards, reading - purposeful activity?

    As for number 41 in your list - I shared a pad with a guy who didn't have a job and was banged up 23 hours a day. I asked him once if he'd had a good day. The reply "yes, I had a wank, a good day".

    1. Thanks for your very relevant contribution to the list! Ah the 'window warrior'... how well I remember that phenomenon. Occasionally the comments were witty, but usually it's just inane babble or obscenities.

      One of the saddest cases I came across was in a Cat-B local where a very disturbed prisoner insisted on holding long, emotional imaginary 'mobile phone' conversations with his partner out of the window so the entire wing could hear every word, particularly in the early hours of the morning. I can still hear him crying out her name. He was eventually sectioned and sent to a secure hospital.

      It is true that some prisoners do have the resources to indulge in in-cell cooking, but for most they don't tend to run to much more than occasional packets of instant noodles. Also, financial constraints and a lack of work and education placements mean that fewer and fewer cons have access to spending money for canteen goods and those who do tend to buy tobacco rather than additional food. I'm thinking of writing a blog post about cooking activities, so thanks for raising the issue!

      In cell hobbies are another area where a few cons do excel at making wonderful items. However, even the most elementary models or frames require cash in the spends account to be able to purchase matchsticks, glue etc, so I would say that this is very much a minority interest. I was once on a Cat-B wing with around 170 other cons and I'd guess that maybe two or three actually produced these matchstick creations. I do recall one lad who built some amazing models out of wooden ice-cream lolly sticks!

      I think that the prison system tends to confuse 'out of cell' with 'purposeful activity'. Sitting in a prison laundry reading a book or playing cards because there is no work to do is still counted as 'purposeful'. Ironically, studying in-cell for a vocational qualification by correspondence course or an Open University degree isn't classed as 'purposeful' because it doesn't tick the correct box and you can't get a weekly wage from it.

      Sadly, activity number 41 on the list is probably as 'productive' as some cons' days ever really get... what a savage indictment of the Prison Service in 2015!

  6. Cons could donate number 41s to the NHS...

    1. Interesting suggestion, but I think that the health screening for Hep and various other things might rule out a fair proportion of the 'contributions', not to mention the likely effect of legal and illegal drugs in the systems of the donors!

  7. Write something about a Parole Board Meeting.

    1. Thanks for your suggestion. I may actually be attending A Parole Board hearing myself (although in a different capacity to being a con) at the end of next month, so I might save that subject up until I've got much more to write on the issue.

  8. Hi Alex,

    Are cons generally allowed writing paper (ie a pad or notebook) and pens/pencils in cells? I'm due a short stretch soon and I wondered, having read another post of yours about the remedy creative writing while inside. I've always wanted to write a novel and this seems like the perfect opportunity!

    Thank you for your brilliant blog,

    1. Hi Richard, sorry to hear that you're going inside, but it's good to read that you are already thinking of doing something positive with the time! I'm glad you are finding this blog of interest.

      According to the national Facilities List (PSI 30/2013) paper, notebooks and pens etc can be brought in 'on reception' (that is, if you bring them in with you from the dock). Avoid pens that aren't see through plastic (ie BIC biros are fine and they are sold on the canteen sheet for around 30p) and any spiral-bound notebooks (the wire is a problem). Stick to new pads and/or notebooks. You can also buy pads of lined paper from the canteen, as well as pencils. Bizarrely, ONLY cons are permitted to have pencil sharpeners inside. Members of staff aren't! We used to loan ours to tutors in the education department so they could sharpen their pencils. Strange, but true!

      You can also take in a dictionary and thesaurus, should you think they would assist. I'd also suggest having a few paperbacks in your bag in the dock with you. That way, if it takes a few weeks to get to the library (which it can in many nicks) you'll have something to read for a while. Feel free to ask any further questions you might have. Best of luck, Alex

    2. Thanks Alex, that's hugely helpful. Very strange about the pencil sharpeners, too!

      I do have a few other motley questions - is it fine to ask them here (they don't concern how to occupy oneself in a cell) or should I post them somewhere else / email them? I'm hugely grateful for your offer, and kind advice. I only expect a few months, so it could be far far worse, but am still as petrified as you'd imagine.


    3. Hi Richard, sure - happy to advise if I can. Feel free to e-mail me any questions to: and I'll reply. I understand how you feel, but believe me it is likely to be an interesting experience if you approach it in the right frame of mind! Alex

    4. Thanks Alex. It's really good to be reminded of the need for a positive approach - you're quite right :) I'll write to you a bit later; thanks again. Richard