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How to make salad dressing in prison: the hit survival guide written by an inmate

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When Carl Cattermole was released from prison, after serving a year of a two-and-a-half-year sentence for criminal damage, he was “confused and angry, but ready to turn everything I’d seen into a positive”. What he’d seen, inside London’s HMP Wormwood Scrubs and HMP Pentonville, was eye-opening. Prison was not the bloodbath that Hollywood had promised, nor the “Butlins for murderers and paedophiles” that the tabloid press had raged about. But it wasn’t as rehabilitative as earnest politicians had promised either. Instead, Cattermole found a system that was simultaneously underfunded and hugely expensive, that prioritised punishment over reform, and often doled this out through instances of banal cruelty – bad food, bad bureaucracy and incentive systems that pitted prisoners against each other.

Upon his release in 2011, Cattermole wrote the guide he had needed inside. Advice such as: how to make salad dressing from tinned tuna and brown sauce. That the best paid job in prison is “biohazard” (cleaning up your fellow prisoners’ puke and blood). A reminder to cancel your standing orders for your phone or TV, so you don’t come out to debt. That claiming to be a bedwetter won’t get you a single cell as it once did – but hearing voices might. How to make “jail velcro”, a device made from a coat-hanger and a drawstring bag used to move objects between cells. That no one trades in cigarettes any more; it’s all toiletries and tinned fish now. The right forms to fill in to make a complaint against an officer. Or that, if you land the right Albanian cellmates, they might make you yoghurt from prison-issue milk. (“Google says this isn’t even possible,” says Cattermole, “but I saw it live and kicking.”)

He called it Prison: A Survival Guide. Once written, Cattermole enlisted a cleaner friend to make 1,000 copies of the book (illegally) using a photocopier in a Canary Wharf bank while on the nightshift. After a while, emails began coming in, from people who had been given a copy, thanking him for helping them access services they hadn’t known existed, for making them feel less alone. Tory MP Priti Patel raged that the book made “a mockery of our criminal justice system and proves the government must reform our prisons and make them tough and unpleasant places”.

‘Tough and unpleasant places’ … inside prison.



‘Tough and unpleasant places’ … inside prison. Photograph: Anthony Devlin/PA

“Every person who enters jail is a complete newbie. I just want people to be up to speed,” he says now, sitting in his small Clapham home, surrounded by the aftermath of his job as a carpenter. He has made me toast and a pint-glass of tea, perhaps a little jittery about how a six-foot-seven ex-con is going to come across in a newspaper. He only makes eye-contact on occasion; a consequence from his time in prison and something he apologises for. You sense he’d have been happy for his guide to have stayed an underground photocopy.

From his perspective, Prison: A Survival Guide is “a well-meaning book, a socially minded book”. He adds: “If anyone from the Daily Mail wants to have a moan, I’m trying to stop people from reoffending, because once someone’s humanity is gone, it is a void to be filled with drugs and violence.”

Even after being “nicked so many times I’ve lost count” and spending 10 months in 23-hour lock-up, Cattermole still broke the law when he came out, just to prove he could: “Minor shit – it’s juvenile, it’s stupid. But there are so many people like me and it’s reality. I don’t like being oppressed, so I acted out.” At his sentencing a year before, he remembers staring at the judge, “some old man speaking Latin with some Jacobean leftover stuck on his head, thinking, ‘Why does he want to control us?’ And that’s why the justice system doesn’t work. They’re old Etonians who have only ever been in trouble for stealing Jaffa Cakes from the boarding-school pantry and we don’t respect their authority one bit.”

With an official publisher now on board, Cattermole has updated the book with insights from other contributors. Ex-prisoner Julia Howard explains the politics of being “gay for the stay” in a women’s prison. Sixteen-year-old Darcey Hartley reveals what it is like having her dad Ian spend 14 years in prison under a since-abolished Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) sentence. Sarah Jane Baker, the world’s longest-serving transgender inmate, whose gender dysphoria was only recognised when she removed her testicles with a prison-issued razor blade, explains the bureaucratic process behind transitioning behind bars. Lisa Selby, whose partner Elliot is in prison, covers visiting someone on the inside – the sign language developed to speed up a cafe order, or dealing with separation anxiety. (“You’ll hate seeing prison officers more intimate with your loved one than you can be … an odd form of jealousy!”)

The main thing Cattermole wants people to understand on the outside is how much prison has changed over the decades. “If you think it is some old-school, cockney bank robber locked up by some fat, jolly screw who will fight them and then have a cup of tea with them, in some bodged rehabilitative idea – none of that is true any more. It is a different type of person in prison now. You can go because you are homeless, because you are a squatter, for not paying your TV licence or sending your kids to school. The people working there are different – the senior officers are so sick of the stress they’re leaving for kids armed with Tasers and tribal tattoos. Reform used to be about reducing prison populations, now Michael Gove is talking about building a massive, US-style super-prison.”

After his time inside, Cattermole is left with a rather grim view of what our prison system says about us. “Gandhi said that a nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members. If you judge England – not that I advise anyone to judge anyone, especially judges – but if you judge England on that basis, we’re fucked.”

Prison: A Survival Guide is published by Penguin on 20 June.

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