The author of this article is a life-sentenced prisoner serving a minimum tariff of 13 years, who communicates with Urban Times via letters which are transcribed to be published online. He describes Notes From The Other Side of The Wall as a kind of ‘Blogumentary’, offering a unique and topical insight into prison as a microcosm of society. Danny Cash is a pseudonym.
Finally I feel like I’ve made some progress in my sentence. I’ve just moved to a new category-C jail and it seems to be everything I hoped it would be–unlike the jail I’ve just moved from; but perhaps I should back up a little first and explain how the life progression route generally works:
English and Welsh jails are divided into four main categories: A, B, C and D, with category-A being the highest security jails and category-D the lowest. There is a fifth category known as Double A-Cat, and these are basically super-secure units within already high-security category-A prisons, effectively prisons within prisons (such units are usually reserved for only the most dangerous offenders).
When a prisoner is first convicted and sentenced, a decision will be made as to which category he will begin his sentence in. This is most usually category-B or, sometimes, category-C. Only the most serious offenders are made category-A prisoners, or ‘put on the book’ as it’s known in prison vernacular. You then do your time and try to work your way through and down to a category-D prison, which is an open prison designed to help you eventually reintegrate into society.
I started out in a category-B local remand jail. It was an old Victorian jail; cold, damp, grey and full of tiny field mice. I remember when Dizzy Daz once captured one and tried to keep it as a pet. The tiny mouse’s new home became a large ventilated Tupperware tub. A few days later though, Daz had second thoughts after he opened the tub to feed it one morning and his new pet, with the heart of a lion, bit right into his finger; I don’t suppose the poor thing liked being caged any more than Dizzy Daz.
After my conviction they told me I’d soon be moving into a category-B lifer jail. The prospect of moving to a new prison filled me with anxiety. The day they came and told me that my transfer was scheduled for the next morning I remember feeling almost nauseous. I’d grown used to the potential for conflict in my local remand jail and learned how to best avoid it. I wondered if it would be so easy to avoid in a lifers’ jail where literally all the prisoners were convicted of seriously violent offences.
How relieved I was then to realise that a lifers’ jail was nothing like what I had been anticipating. The first thing I remember noticing is how pleasant and polite all the officers were. They introduced themselves by their first names and called me by mine. The officers in my local remand jail had been professional for sure but arriving in the reception of the lifers’ jail the officers were polite and respectful in a way I had never experienced.
On the wings I noticed that nearly all the men seemed that little bit more laid back than the men in the local remand jail; as I soon learned, it’s because nobody has anything to prove. Everybody’s doing a long time and most people would like to do that time as peacefully and quietly as possible. I later realised that this was because, in the case of the overwhelming majority of lifers, they are normal, everyday people whose lives have been engulfed by one catastrophic decision chain that led to the tragedy. If they could change just one of the decisions in that disastrous chain then, in all probability, they would never have committed their offences.
It seemed to me that the difference between living in a local remand jail and living in a lifers’ jail was the difference between living on an inner-city council estate and living in an affluent suburb! I remember a television documentary crew visiting the prison to make a film about the jail. The editor said that the jail was nothing like she expected it to be. She didn’t elaborate on what exactly she had been expecting, but she did remark on how friendly, polite and welcoming she found everyone at the jail–staff and prisoners alike.
It seemed to me that the difference between living in a local remand jail and living in a lifers’ jail was the difference between living on an inner-city council estate and living in an affluent suburb.
Nevertheless, for as good as we had it there, walking around the large exercise yard, all any of us ever seemed to dream of was making the ‘progressive’ move to a category-C jail, where we figured life was so much better. We imagined vast green fields, windows without bars and low fences; we imagined being one small step closer to our families and one giant leap closer to home. In category-C jails, we seemed to convince ourselves, it was almost as good as being in a category-D jail and, as all lifers know, a category-D jail is almost as good as being home.
The day my Offender Supervisor told me that I had been re-categorised to a category-C prisoner a flood of emotion swept through me. I was just about able to hold back the tears long enough to get back to my cell. I’ll never forget looking in my little plastic mirror, tears streaming down my cheeks, thanking God for carrying me a step closer to home.
Arriving at my new category-C jail though, I realised almost straight away that I, along with many other prisoners at the lifers’ jail, had been labouring under a false impression of what category-C jails were really all about. I was about to get the biggest culture shock since I first came to prison almost seven years ago.
Continued in Part Two…