Wednesday, 17 September 2014

A Quick Guide to the Cats… and Re-cats

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.


  1. Please write something about Prison dramas, are they realistic? I watched the first series of "Prison Break" before I was bored of it, I haven't seen "Orange is the new black" yet.

    1. Apparently "Porridge" is the most realistic portrayal of a UK prison.

    2. I like Mr Mackay, the cons are better dressed in the show.

    3. Och aye the noo!

    4. Thanks for these comments. I think that "Porridge" is probably a reflection of the physical conditions in prisons back in the 1970s. The way it portrays relations between cons and screws is not so far from the truth! I know one particular Scottish officer (ex-Army) who has many similarities with Mr Mackay.

      Prison uniforms for cons is definitely down market these days: dirty old jogging bottoms and stained t-shirts and sweatshirts. The only real survivors from those days are the blue and white striped shirts (and then mainly for visits only).

    5. Thanks for your request for a post on prison dramas. To be honest, the only ones I've ever seen myself are "Porridge", "Within these Walls" (both back in the 1970s), "Scum" (a borstal), a few episodes of "Prison Break" (before I also lost the will to continue viewing) and more recently the film "Starred Up" (which I've mentioned in one of my recent blog posts).

      I think that the US prison experience is just so different to anything in the UK, that I'm not in a position to judge whether US dramas are realistic or not. My reading about US prisons and recent TV documentaries suggest that they are based in fact, but obviously sensationalised. I also got the impression that much of the "Prison Break" plot was simply pure fantasy.

      "Starred Up" was a curious mix of fact and fiction. Some of it was instantly recognisable by any con as realistic - the gym scene is spot on - while other parts were much less likely. Funnily enough, I have served time with father-son combos, as in "Starred Up". Sons are sometimes put together with their sons in cell-shares, as are brothers.

    6. Alex, thank you for a tremendously diverting blog –let’s hope that you don’t run out of ideas for post topics. I’ve read that prisons tend to age folks to greater extent than normal passage of time does.

      “….. that people age quicker while in prison; by up to 10 years more than their biological age ….”

      This was from a report on the www.parliament website, dealing with the Justice Committee’s look at older prisoners.

      I would be interested in your particular view about this phenomenon ----it seems totally scary if true ….I mean it’s equivalent to a sentence abstracting the time of the sentence from life span and taking literally more than those years, too.

      I’m not explaining this very well, but I would value what you think. Thank you …Geoff.

    7. Thanks for your kind comments and your question, Geoff. I have also read this particular report and I think that what is being described is a complex issue.

      Prisoners in general do have a tendency to suffer from depression and various stress-related conditions, including higher blood-pressure, strokes and heart failure. Of course, the fact that an estimated 80 percent of cons are smokers doesn't help matters. Those with drug and alcohol dependencies can also seem to age much more quickly. Moreover, the rising average age of prisoners across the prison estate is also a contributory factor in the number that suffer from age-related health conditions.

      What I have noticed is that those prisoners who are serving life or who have Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection (IPP) often appear to have lost much of their will to live, particularly when they are many years over the minimum tariff recommended by the judge at their trial. They often look much older than they really are. I suppose that it is one of the consequences of what many of them have come to believe is a hopeless situation. Even young lads in their 20s on IPP sentences soon start to look as if their eyes are dead when they are on these open-ended stretches.

      Poor healthcare services in prisons also play a major factor in inmate ill-health. I well remember being on a wing in a C-cat with a man serving an IPP sentence who looked as if he was in his mid-80s. He shuffled along, was incontinent at times and barely spoke. Eventually he collapsed and was taken to an outside hospital where he was diagnosed with incurable liver cancer that had progressed because all his symptoms had basically been ignored by the prison healthcare team. It was only after his death that we realised he had been in his early 60s. He looked and acted as if he was about 20 years older.

      Some inmates just give up on life, particularly if they live with serious mental health problems or are in chronic pain from physical conditions. The first visible signs are when they start looking unkempt and stop showering or shaving. They often fail to change dirty clothing and gradually stop eating. Some become painfully thin. Many self-harm by cutting or burning themselves. The degradation can be terrible to witness. It is a long, slow slide towards the grave. Once they are reduced to that state, death almost seems to be a merciful release.

    8. I too have witnessed relatively 'young' men displaying the health and appearance of somebody a couple of decades older. Poor healthcare, poor exercise and a poor diet add to premature aging.

      However I've seen a very few guys who'd been inside for very long periods (20 years plus) who had the ability to take care of themselves, eat as well as they could and stay away from drugs, alcohol and tobacco. They actually looked younger than their years.

      From a different aspect what I noticed inside was the mental development of longer term offenders. It seems, for some, that their mental development stops at the time they enter into the prison system. I've know guys in their 40s who acted like teenagers - the same age they entered into institutionalisation, some on long stretches, others in and out many times. A first timer generally seemed to act as you'd expect him to but for so many around me it felt like they were kids at boarding school and just having a bit of a laugh as you would as a 13 year old kid. Of course, I saw no psychological intervention for these people within the prison system to help them move on.

    9. Thank you, Alex, it was very good of you to respond.

      Thinking further about it, using what you've mentioned, especially the concept of hopelessness and the profound effects that can have, the reality of the mind-body duality is confirmed. It must be a desperately difficult cycle to break free of, once in.

      That's interesting, Anon ---just wondering if it's to some extent the same for politicians ------straight into a very positive cocoon of massive self-validation, where nothing much gets worse for them after entry.

      The complete opposite of what befalls a prisoner (very negative cocoon of massive subtraction from the self where nothing much gets better for them after entry). One isolation from society is excessively negative the other excessively positive.

      Alarming that former group control the meanest circumstance of the latter.

      Thank you both.

    10. Thanks for both your comments. I would agree with the issue of 'arrested' development of men inside prisons, particularly those who have been inside the criminal justice system since they were teenagers. Many of them have failed to grow up or mature, let alone learn about how to develop honest and caring adult relationships. This just stores up serious problems for the future.

      However, it needs to be recognised that one of the functions of prison is control and effective infantilisation of adults. There is a paradox here. Prisoners are always being told that they need to take responsibility for their own actions, but are routinely denied any real responsibility for their own lives. Even the language used by screws reinforces this infantilisation: "lads", "boys"... etc. It's like being in a big boarding school or reformatory!

      The worst combination is the ageing con who is in his 40s but still thinks and acts like a teenager. He has spent his youth and young manhood on the prison landings and still believes he is a kid, even though the real world has moved on. It can be tragic to see.

  2. I guess the shock of being sentenced can turn a man's hair white overnight, he looks old and yet acts like a child.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I think there's some truth in that.

      Certainly some new receptions cope better than others. I think that any career criminal who is claustrophobic has made a bad lifestyle choice! On the other hand a lot of guys serving really short sentences - the proverbial "shit and a shave" - really don't do well. A friend of mine who was serving an Indeterminate Sentence for Public Protection (IPP) once had a new reception put in his pad (cell). This guy was sobbing his heart out, nearly hysterical.

      My mate thought he must have just been sent down for "a lump" (a very long sentence, maybe even life with a minimum recommendation of 20 years or something similar). Eventually, when the new con had calmed down enough to be able to speak, my mate asked him how long he'd been sent down for. The bloke started sobbing again and replied "two weeks!" Needless to say, his new padmate told him to "shut the fuck up" and do his bird!

  3. Please write about solitary confinement. Last night I watched a show about Maine State Prison where the new governor is reducing the number of cons in isolation. He reckoned it affected their mental health and made them more violent.

    1. Thanks for your comments. I am also very concerned over the rising use of Basic regime and segregation in UK prisons, particularly the terrible impact on mental health - leading to self-harm and even suicide. I do make reference to this in many of my blog posts. I'll think it through and see if I can come up with something more to add to what I've already written.

  4. I was lucky enough to visit Moscow on a school trip. When I returned home I library loaned a selection of short stories by Russian writers like Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov & Solzhenitsyn. I reckon cons should read the prison related books to see the similarities between prison characters and rules, back then and now.

    1. Thanks for your comments. Funnily enough, I re-read Arthur Koestler's novel Darkness at Noon while I was inside. Amazingly, the remand system and even the way the canteen order worked in Stalin's Soviet Union is not very different to British nicks today!

      A lot of cons do read Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It's very short and quite an easy read for them. Each and every one of the characters can still be recognised in UK prisons: the grass, the jobsworth, the red-band trustee, the thief, the religious maniac... Human nature rarely changes much!

  5. Have you visited a YOI, does it differ much from a Prison?

    1. Thanks for your questions. I have visited a YOI years ago in a professional capacity, but not since then. I have been in prison with quite a few Young Prisoners (18-21), as well as in adult prisons with lads who have been at YOIs until they turned 21.

      I've written something about YOIs on this blog: Glen Parva: More 'Scum' than 'Lord of the Flies': You might find it interesting.

      Based on what I've been told by ex-YOs and read in official reports, YOIs seem to be quite a lot more violent than adult nicks. Too many young lads with too much energy and aggression, but not enough activities or education to keep them busy!

  6. Glad I finally found some interesting info! Can I ask did you go from hmp stocken to a d-cat? My partner was transferred to stocken last week an has his 3rd d-cat review next month. Thanks

  7. Thanks for your comment. I'm glad you are finding the blog of interest. I actually got my D-cat at another Cat-C prison. However, a lot of Stocken lads do seem to get their D-cat status as most of my mates (including one of my cell mates) came straight from Stocken to open conditions. I hope your partner's review is positive and that he gets to a Cat-D soon. It's a whole different world! Alex

  8. This was interesting, I have got back in touch with an old flame who is currently in prison with 10 months left, he is currently a Cat B, and we were hoping he would go to a Cat D by the beginning of next year, is this possible? also what is it actually like on a visit, what should I expect when I go to see him ?

  9. can a c cat prisoner with the charges under sexual offence with a good behaviour can go to cat d ? he has got 8 years - 4 in prison.. pls answer

  10. I was in a cat B followed by a cat C and the difference was huge.

  11. Great blog, thank you. Without blogs like yours I would be even more in the dark than I am now. I'm the mother of someone who is going to prison for a fair time for fraud. He will be a first timer at 40. What advice can you offer to try to keep your head down and avoid any bother please? Thanks so much.

  12. Same age as my husband (his first offence too). I didn't think my husband would cope, but he does. He gave up smoking before going in, so no1 could sponge off him. He has no choice but to get on with it so that's what he does. He's polite, does as told and keeps a goal of getting home asap in mind constantly, so goes on any courses, work offered etc..which keeps his mind busy. He doesn't ask other prisoners for anything and doesn't lend anything out,that way nobody is beholdant to anyone!As a wife I feel it's harder for myself, children and his mother than for him. It's me that has to deal with the outside world, day to day things and keeping it together for everyone!Best of luck to you both.