Going to Gaol

If you are expecting a prison sentence then this section is designed for you.

It will educate you about prison, and remove some of the myths and the legends which surround it. It will also help you and your family to come to terms with what may appear to be the end of the world at the moment, but which in reality is an experience that is both manageable and survivable so long as you know the ground rules.


The way of quickly getting educated about what really happens in our penal system is to talk to those who have been there. Here are the views of two former prisoners, describing their fears and the reality of prison life.

Go to testimonial number 1. ERICA NATEGHI
Go to testimonial number 2. JOYCE CONNOR

Reception into Prison

What are the Issues?

Prisoners, whether convicted or unconvicted, should raise at reception any worries concerning commitments outside prison. The references in the text below refer to The Prisons Handbook

These are likely to include:

  • care of children or elderly relatives
  • pressing personal or financial matters
  • advice regarding benefits (see Chapter 2.1, Social Security and Discharge Grants)
  • securing domestic possessions
  • urgent legal assistance (see also Chapter 3.1, The Directory)
  • preserving outside accommodation and employment
  • immediate refreshment needs e.g. clothing, toiletry etc (staff must provide prisoners with any items required in this vein to meet essential personal needs for at least 24 hours).

Prisoners should also raise at reception any worries concerning adapting to prison life. These are likely to include:

  • particular needs arising from your religious faith
  • specific needs due to pregnancy (see Chapter 2.15, Women Prisoners)
  • anxieties resulting from your being a long way from home
  • whether there is reason for you to be segregated from the general prison population, in the interest of your own safety
  • an inability to speak English, in which case interpretation services must be made available to you both at reception and during the later induction process (see Chapter 2.18, Foreign Prisoners)
  • any physical disability which will affect where in the prison you should be located.

Also, if you suffer from visual impairment or are deaf or hearing impaired, the Prison Service must make arrangements to ensure appropriate assistance is offered to you. For visual impairment you might request a personal reader, or information provided in Braille, large print or on tape. If you are hearing impaired, you may require a minicom (text telephone) or an induction loop (amplification device). Make it clear to officers whether you rely on a hearing aid, lip-read or use British Sign Language. In this last case, tell officers if you require a British Sign Language interpreter. If you suffer from dyslexia, you may benefit from receiving information on tape rather than in printed form, and should make a request for this. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 makes it unlawful to discriminate against disabled people in connection with employment, provision of goods, facilities and services or the disposal, or management, of premises. PSO 2855 governs the management of prisoners with physical, sensory or mental disabilities and the prison (see Chapter 2.19, Disability in Prison).


When you go into prison you will be given a Prisoner Information Book which will provide you with the basic information you need to know in order to understand your sentence, these are updated every couple of years so you cannot really rely on the essence of what they say, though they will give you a basic idea about howthe prison system works and what roughly the Prison Service expect of you - and what you can expect from them in return.

By far the most comprehensive source of information is The Prisons Handbook, an annual publication the latest edition of which is published in November 2005. You can buy the Handbook securely online here and save £10 on the purchase price.

"A Focused mind is the key to survival": Erica Nateghi

Coming into prison for the first time is, needless to say, a daunting experience. For remand prisoners, not knowing how long you may be staying there makes it even worse. All that is running through your mind (if it is not so numb that it can't function) is the family you have left behind. How will your children cope without their mother? How will you cope without your partner for comfort? Depression, anger and resentment each take their turn to roll through you until you feel emotionally and physically drained.

Reception is the first point of call once you are off-loaded from the 'sweatbox'. The reception staff can appear quite solemn and somewhat regimental in manner, but this is mainly because they want to get you processed and accommodated as quickly as possible.

It is a national routine procedure to be strip-searched. Not a pleasant experience, but they need to check that you have not concealed any weapons, drugs, or other prohibited items on your person. In some prisons you are then give a 'prison issue' towel, soap, shampoo, toothbrush and dressing gown, and made to take a shower. The nurse comes to take your height and weight and will ask you about your general fitness, you are also usually questioned as to whether you have any suicidal tendencies. They then send you back to the care of the reception staff to have your property logged. Finally you are permitted to put your clothes back on and collect your belongings to take with you to your allocated cell.

If you had started to gain comfort from getting to know the other new prisoners who came in with you, then it is soon lost as you are all split up and locked in separate cells. I remember walking down the wing hearing the prisoners shouting 'New meat!' to each other, and having to take deep breaths to steady my rapidly beating heart. The harsh sound of steel-on-steel as your cell door is slammed and locked behind you is enough to send your already delicate nerves over, or at least close to, the edge. Then you are completely alone to adjust to and take in your new surroundings.

You will be given an induction on the prison's facilities, including what the gym, library and education have to offer. These can all be used to vent your pent-up emotions and feelings through the right channels, giving you a modest sense of release. Keeping yourself to yourself is best, at least until you have studied and observed how your fellow prisoners profile. For those who have been sentenced it is a good idea to 'plan' how to spend your time inside constructively. Offending behaviour courses are always beneficial and, depending on the length of your sentence, there is usually a range of educational courses available.

It does not generally take long to adjust to prison life. I am not saying that it is enjoyable, far from it, but you learn to cope. For anyone who is finding it exceptionally difficult to settle, and becoming quite desperate, do not be afraid to talk to someone. If you feel that you cannot do so to an officer or any other member of the prison staff, there is a 'Listener's Scheme' in every prison, which is a group of inmates trained by the Samaritans.

You do not need to be told who to hang around or socialise with, this is simply a matter of common sense. The main thing always to remember is that you have to look out for yourself at all times as, believe me, no one will be doing it for you.

All you need to know is that a focused mind is the key to survival!

Erica Nateghi
"Observe and follow in the footsteps of the winners, achievers, leaders and survivors"

Prison life will mean something different to each individual that unfortunately ends up there. The shock, chaos and disarray of what has happened to you and your loved ones will no doubt have you feeling various emotions. Sometimes those emotions are similar to the anguish one experiences when someone close to you has died. Shock, denial, anger, blame, bargaining and then acceptance.

When you have entered prison for the first time, the usual routine is to go to reception. There may be a queue of people ahead of you, but just like yourself they will be experiencing the same fears, doubts and insecurities. When you are called by one of the officers it will be to sort out your property cards, where it will be explained to you what you are allowed in your possession and what items you aren't. Depending on your length of sentence, some people will be entitled to more items than others. If you progress from Standard Level to Enhanced Level you will be allowed more personal belongings; those on Basic Level will receive less. One of the Wing Officers, or your Prisons Handbook, will explain all of this. Certainly this is the least of your concerns when arriving for the first time in prison. Once you have departed from reception and been allocated to your room and wing, you will be too tired to care about various levels or earned privileges.

Reception staff can at times be intimidating, but remember they aren't responsible for why you've been imprisoned. They are only there to do a job and see that your needs are attended to in the most professional manner possible. A strip search is part of this procedure, this is routine and it's best if you co-operate; the officers aren't interested in what size or shape you're in. The search is carried out purely to ensure that nothing is being smuggled into the prison. A doctor will attend to you. He/she will carry out a medical check. Those sentenced to four or more years are usually allocated to the hospital wing for observation, it is necessary to keep a check that you are not going to attempt suicide. Medication will be prescribed if the doctor is concerned about your mental state and abilities to cope-there is nothing wrong with asking for a mild sedative or sleeping tablet for the first few days as your mind will be working overtime, and adjusting to the routine of prison can be overwhelming.

Sentence has been passed; you've applied to appeal; you've screamed at your lawyer; you've lost everything, blamed everyone, cried, threatened people, convinced anyone who'll listen of your innocence and how it's all a mistake, and you should be freed at your appeal. You've assessed what prospects there are of escaping and you realise there aren't any. Now you accept your situation on a day-to-day basis, even though in the back of your mind you're hoping to win your appeal. We've all done that. It's an excellent diversion; appeals do help ease the pain, because there is still some hope. In the meantime try to remember that things will get easier and your situation will improve. Everything is strange and different at first, but you will soon adapt.

After you have adapted to the formal introduction to prison, like sleeping in a strange bed or going for your meals and getting to know your new room mates (if you aren't in a single cell), you might start to feel like venturing a little bit further, such as going to the library or the gym. Life is what you make it, whether you're free or in jail: the choice is yours. Depending on your length of sentence, it could be the start of a whole new beginning. Prison does give you options in the sense of bettering yourself. For instance education is the best route to take for those with long sentences, you can amass qualifications which would have cost you hundreds of pounds on the outside. If it's money you need to survive, then you'll need to apply for the highest paying jobs being offered in the jail. The best advice is to ask around and find out what's suited to you and your needs.

The most common fear amongst inmates is being bullied. How does one avoid this? The most successful way of avoiding intimidating individuals is to be constructive, well-informed, intelligent, confident and prepared for the worst case scenario. Bullying happens when you're of a weak character. Being in prison does make you stronger, that is if you apply the methods needed to successfully complete your sentence and use the experience in a positive and constructive manner.

While in prison don't hang around people who are doing drugs or are involved with same sex relationships; these are the cause of 95 per cent of the prisons' problems. If you are a homosexual, the best alternative route is to use your time for self-discovery. There's nothing wrong with being celibate. Re-invent yourself as a leader not a follower and seek out other people who share the same views as yourself. Do this in a manner which is healthy and mature. Countless and meaningless relationships in prison can cause disharmony, jealousy and hate. Find other alternatives for your natural urges. Read; write; go to the gym; play snooker; watch television; find a hobby such as drawing, painting, embroidery, knitting; make things that are comforting or useful like quilts, pillows, clothes, matchstick models, sculptures. All of these materials are available in most workshops, education or evening classes. Some prisons allow items to be sent in.

Stay away from drugs. The only people doing them are individuals with serious problems. If you hang around those people you are only inviting trouble to your door. Drug addicts are desperate and too self absorbed to care about anything except where their next fix is coming from. I know it's a mixed up world and drugs are the route to all evil, whether you take them or not. Drugs only attract problems and the drug addicts problems will become your problem if you partake in any of their desperate attempts at escaping reality. Use your common sense. Feel people out. Don't reveal too much of your business, and get to like your own company. It's healthy not to depend on other people, as you'll find most individuals will come and go. Observe and follow in the footsteps of the winners, achievers, leaders and survivors.

Take care of your health, smile at people, but don't get too close. Think positive, win awards, enter competitions for poetry, short stories or art. Go for as many certificates as you can. Try yoga, meditation, read self-help books and positive affirmations for each day. Believe you can get through it and you will. Imagine yourself being free one day and before you know it-that day will come.

Most of all. Forgive yourself for whatever you have done wrong and strive to make the most of a bad situation. Be kind to YOU and realise that you too are a human being, not a human doing. As for any victims involved in your crime, imagine how they may have felt and by correcting your own behaviour and serving your time, you might one day be forgiven. For anyone falsely imprisoned, it is important that you fight for your innocence. For anyone who returns to prison the second time . . . well, what can one say? You're your own worst enemy, hopefully one day you'll get it together.

Joyce Connor

The Prisons Handbook 2008

The Definitive 840-page Annual Guide to the Penal System of England and Wales.
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