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First Time in Prison?

What (not) to Expect

The most important thing to keep in mind is to expect that things will not go as planned. Before you go in, you might find many people will offer advice – and you should take as much as you can. But don’t bank on any of it being right.

From the moment you are sentenced and taken to the cell below the courtroom, the advice you’ve been given, such as how long you’ll be kept there before moving on will be ringing in your ears. But this could be wrong by hours in either direction – and that sets the tone for things to come.

You may have been told when your lawyers might come to see you after the sentencing, when you can make your first phone call, or when the induction process in your “first” prison will be, these can all be wrong. The earlier you learn to roll with it the better, even though this is incredibly hard.

"Try to remember when the next stage happens doesn’t actually matter – you’re just killing time for a long time now so try not to stress even though it seems very important…”

“Rolling with it” will be harder than you think. The major culture shock of being imprisoned comes from being so out of control of what happens to you. Many people try to compensate by focussing on key expectations or milestones such as what might happen and when it might happen (from cleaning and food to visits and telephone calls). Doing this might seem like a good strategy, but you will soon find that it won’t happen as you expect and the result is that can seem like the end of the world.

You find reasons to fixate on when you’re being moved on, or when they will take you to your cell in prison, or the next thing, and the next thing. It can seem very important. But try to remember that none of it actually matters – 9pm or 10pm or 11pm makes no difference at all. You’re just killing time for a long time now so try not to stress. Like it or not, though, despite having read this, you will find some timing or proper procedure you consider to be really important – it’s probably not.

Obviously some things do have a tangible effect – when you get to go through your property is when you may get your books or toiletries and therefore have something to do or clean with, but this could be day 2 or day 10 (irrespective of what it “officially” says in your prison) so even with those things try not to expect too much, even if you’ve tried to work it out from what other prisoners have said or experienced when you’re there.

Don’t expect them to properly tell you what’s going on, or give you a proper induction into how it all works before you have to fend for yourself. Any induction programme could take a few days to get on, and in that time you have to be prepared to have absolutely no idea how anything works, and figure it out as you go along. Again, you will see posters on the walls telling you what happens for induction, and you will have guards telling you that it will be the next day – don’t bank on it, expect there to be a period when you are just figuring it out from watching everyone else.

And when you finally get an induction, remember who the target audience is – the most vulnerable and needy. It may feel like a useless health and safety course, telling you about self-harm and only to use the emergency bell in emergencies. It will not tell you useful things like how to find out if you’re getting moved to a more open prison, etc.

"You will gradually figure out which guards know a lot and which know nothing and starting with the right one may help, but initially you won’t have a clue…"

The main reason for all this uncertainty and things not going as planned is that these institutions are large, complex, funded at the margins, and dealing with a variety of difficult to manage people. They will, therefore, struggle to run themselves well, which can manifest itself as everything running slightly inefficiently, or one or two things running completely hopelessly while the rest is ok. This will be intensely frustrating, especially as you will feel that whatever they are hopeless at is having a material effect on your life.

This will be acutely compounded by the loss of control you feel to do anything about it, as you are only let out a couple of hours a day in which to make anything happen, and then the only way is to fill in an application form, give it to a guard on your wing or corridor who potentially knows nothing, who will then send it to the appropriate department to deal with, which you will never be allowed to talk to directly. When it comes back, you may then find out they didn’t read it properly, and you’ll have to send it in again, having lost four days in the process. You will gradually figure out which guards know a lot and which know nothing and starting with the right one may help, but initially you won’t have a clue, and even later on, as you are only let out a couple of hours at a time, you may have to wait a few days before you get the guard you want free at the time you are out.

The immediate loss of contact with the outside world will also hit hard and you will be focused on all ways to achieve some (calls, visits) – it is one of the hardest things to achieve in prison (hence whole sections on Phone calls and letters and visits) and so be prepared to fail in all your efforts over the first few days, albeit that there’s no reason not to try.