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Surviving the first 24 hours in prison
In the first few days of imprisonment, prisoners are particularly vulnerable and the risk of suicide is high during this time.

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The first 24 hours in prison

HM Inspectorates of Prisons recently (26 November 2015) published one of their “findings papers”; a series of reports about life in prison, focusing on The First 24 hours in prison.

The paper draws on evidence from inspections of local prisons, including survey data and comments from confidential prisoner surveys in the financial year 2014/15.

Over 100,000 people per year enter prison for the first time; a daunting experience for most.

In the first few days of imprisonment, prisoners are particularly vulnerable and the risk of suicide is high during this time. Figures released by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) state that 10% of the self-inflicted deaths he investigated between 2007 and 2013 had taken place during an individual’s first three days in custody.

Prior to arriving at a prison, prisoners have been detained in a court, often for a long period in conditions recently strongly criticised by inspectors. They are then taken to prison in an escort van; another recent (2014) inspectors’ report criticised the safety and decency of some escort arrangements.


The entry process

The paper provides a flow chart showing an individual’s typical first experiences in prison:

prison reception process


The expectations

The paper sets out inspectors’ expectations of how new arrivals are treated:

At all adult prisons, our expectations are that:

  • Prisoners feel and are safe on their reception into prison and for the first few days in custody
  • Prisoners are treated with respect on arrival at the prison
  • Prisoners know what will happen next and the sources of help that are available
  • Prisoners are fully supported on arrival and during their early days in prison
  • Officers ensure that individuals’ needs or immediate anxieties are addressed before they are locked away for the night.

Our new expectations for women prisoners recognise their specific needs and include the following additional expectations:

  • The safety of women’s children and other dependents is assessed and safeguarded
  • Women’s needs are accurately assessed on arrival and timely action is taken to address them. Officers ensure that individuals’ needs or immediate anxieties are addressed before they are locked away for the night.


The reality

The inspectors’ paper then reports on how far these expectations are met; examining three distinct areas: the prisoner’s experience in reception, the prisoner’s experience on their first night at the prison and the support available to prisoners during their first 24 hours in an establishment.



These are the inspectors’ main findings of prisoners’ experience of reception:

  • Even after what were frequently long waits in escort vans outside the prison, only 40% of men at local prisons told us that they had been in reception for less than two hours; with some prisoners telling of spending 8-9 hours in reception.
  • The physical conditions of the reception area ranged from very good (Eastwood Park) to “austere and dingy” (Wormwood Scrubs).
  • 62% male prisoners and 81% female prisoners said they were treated well or very well in reception.
  • Although 79% of men and 91% of women at local prisons told inspectors that they were searched in a respectful way in reception, many were routinely strip-searched with no supporting intelligence – even if they were coming from another custody setting.
  • Prisoners often did not receive their entitlements, the table below is an aggregate from all inspections of local prisons:

prisoner reception entitlements

First night in prison

Most prisons have a dedicated first night centre or induction wing where new arrivals are placed, with a separate unit for vulnerable prisoners. The inspectors found that:

Too often first night cells were dirty and unprepared for new arrivals, with some containing offensive graffiti and insufficient bedding and equipment. However, in some prisons new arrivals are placed in the best accommodation, with a separate shower and toilet attached to the cell.

73% men and 75% women said that they felt safe on their first night at the prison.

Risk assessments – to identify vulnerable prisoners – tended to be done better at women’s prisons than men’s.


Support in the first 24 hours

As shown in the table below, inspectors found that many prisoners at both men and women’s local prisons were likely to report having problems when they first arrived. Although women reported having more problems when they arrived at the prison, they were also much more likely to receive help from staff in dealing with them.

reception help with problems

On arrival at prison, most people want to be able to talk to family and friends but inspectors found that a third of men and a quarter of women had difficulties in being able to use a phone.

Only a minority of prisoners were able to access support from a Listener (a prisoner trained by the Samaritans to provide confidential emotional support to other prisoners) or peer mentor, but those who did found the support very valuable.



Perhaps the most important recommendation made by the inspectors in this report is one that should be relatively easy to ensure:

Staff should give new prisoners clear and accurate information to help them understand what is going to happen to them.

Surely this is not too much to ask?

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6 Responses

  1. My first time in prison was dire to say the least, I was scared to death but did not show it, that was over 15yrs ago when HMP Risley in Warrington took female prisoners, I went there a couple more times but when they stopped taking females it was then HMP Styal that was my local prison, as a shoplifter(drugs/addict/heroin/crack cocaine) I was always in and out for a couple of months at a time, it used to be that you went through reception sometimes lasted for hours before being moved onto the wing, if you had ever been before it was a shock this was the days when they put u behind your door alot of the time and from saturday night till Monday morning you were unlocked only to run and get your dinner or tea on a tray and go back behind your door with it and if you were new and it as night time you didn’t know that once they did night time lockdown your cell wasn’t being opened till the morning after for breakfast, so if you forgot to get matches to go with your tobacco you weren’t getting a smoke till you were opened up the morning after and that on it’s own there is massive, infact it was soul destroying because you were at your lowest ebb in life and the prison service and courts back then just piled more shit on top of all the shit stuff you had just had happen to you for the last 48 hours, especially for the drug addict because they didn’t give you any methadone in those days so you could be going cold turkey of whatever drugs and couldn’t even have a smoke that would of done my head in, In those days there was girls killing themselves every week, it was awful one girl died because she swallowed cotton wool and it expanded inside her and she couldn’t breath all because she was going cold turkey even now it makes me want to scream and cry at the injustice of it all others hanging themselves i know over a 12 month period there was at least 7 girls died as a reult of cold turkey and lockdowns we had to endure but also because of their pasts I found most of the girls in prison had been abused as a child some worse than others and most of them had been on the game as well, selling themselves to fund their habit on red light districts, and they would all tell you they didn’t want to do it but had to so they could fund thei habit and stay out of prion to, althugh some grls got sent to prison for soliciting or loitering a the charges were called by the police back then, I just know these girls like myself needed alot more comfort than they ever got it was a dog eat dog world in prison and I used to be quiet in the beginning when i got sent to prison thinking i wouldn’t draw attention to myself and that way keep out of trouble and get out when i was supposed to but I soon learned that it didn’t work because then people thought you were easy pickings and so then I would usually end up fighting because i am one of them people if you bully me i’m going to stand up to you and if you hit me be prepared to fight because I am going to fucking pounce on you and also if you stayed quiet you got nothing when things were being offered out, I learned to be oneof the ones at the front shouting the loudest because thats the only way you could survive in that enviroment back then………I learned to be really good at making things last and networking with the other girls, you scratch my back etc and swinging a line in those days was a must if you wanted to be ok even if you were behind your door and especially on the wk-ends….. then after a few years they started to give methadone out building it up gradually over a few days to say 40mls a day which wasn’t anywhere near enough but was enough to stop you having a full blown cold turkey. Then they made one of the houses in the grounds the reception wing which was a lot better I thought it wasn’t as bad in some respects but it could be terrifying depending on who was in your room with you and n some cases it could be 4 to a room and if one of the girls was a nasty bully you were either having a bad night being bullied and having stuff took from you or you were fighting right off the bat because you wouldn’t be bullied in which case you went down the block till the day after when you went up before the governor after a couple of days on here the drug free people would be moved onto which ever house the officers felt was best for you but if you were on drugs it did not matter if you had been in before or not you were going n Waite Wing and that is an horrible place as well as all the addicts coming down off drugs you have all the people who are on report or behind their doors for breaking whatever rules and it was a mine field of sharks and if you didn’t know the score you could bitten very badly the only good thing I will say for the women’s prisons is that if there is a bully they only get away with it for so long because someone will either challenge the bully outright or a good few of the girls would bring it to the officers attention and it usually got dealt with quickly, were all in the same boat in there, I have to say it kept me alive back then my stints in prison was were my body had time to mend a little before i went back out there and abused myself to death nearly….I had more in prison that out of prison at one point, everyone used to talk about there release date and i hated mine because i would be going back out to whatever i came in from, they were supposed to not release you if you did not have an address to go to but they got round this by putting the address down that you used in court and you really wanted to be free so you let them get away with keep doing this and they new this to and abused it the staff, I do hope that changed I used to want to cry on my release date but i would pretend i was really buzzing because didn’t want to look weak in front of the other girls and i’ get out and with a weeks giro of about £50.00 and by tea time i wouldn’t have a penny and would of spent it at some other junkie’s home with them just so i had somewhere to stay that night and by teat time i would be hungry as well….i spent a long time on the treadmills of courts and prisons finally getting clean and changing my life after 20yrs as a junkie i have been clean for almost a decade now and love life, I cannot believe how silly I have been and my health as suffered massively and maybe if prison had worked the way it was supposed to like me getting proper counselling and somewhere decent to live or even being offered a rehab i might of done it 10yrs sooner…or even 15yrs sooner….now that would of been good….

  2. Thanks for taking the time to share your bad times, glad you are doing so well now.
    When I first started working in this field 30 years ago, Risley was known as Grisly Risley for good reason.

    1. Oh god it was as awful a place as you can ever imagine and the womens wing on one side ran parallel the wing for child molestors and rapists all down one side of it so at night when we were locked in the men on this wing on the other side would be shouting some terrible stuff to us women , we also had 1 officer who was a senior officer to and he used to run up and don the landings after bang up at night time kicking the doors and screaming things like “Shut up you dirty f-ing slags”… was a bad place for sure 🙁

  3. Why cant prisons offer rehab? How sad to be trapped in a self destructive cycle….. I don’t think anyone grows up thinking, when im older I am going to be a drug addict and sell my body or commit crimes…. the root of all evil is poverty and abuse…. we have to educate children and offer them support from the youngest ages…. too many young people are pushed from pillar to post because no one wants to except responsibility for them. Police turn a blind eye to so many crimes that do not make them as a business money…. child prostitution, theft, grooming, domestic violence, knife anx gang violence. They only care about fraud and drugs….. it is hard for young people growing up in violent homes they mimick what they see….. too many adults put their own needs before their childrens then they end up in care or on the streets…… young people need to be shown better oppourtunities and positive role models….. its a shame so little money is put into youth and communities….. the tv, ads, computer games are so violent and sexual young people get the wrong messages about life. Hostels are horrible places….. when vulnerable people are preyed on. How can u rebuild your life around people who are dragging you down? How can a vulnerable young person out of care be housed in a hostel where drug dealers and pimps prey? The system needs a shake up…. PBR is an idiocracy designed to justify cuts and take even more precious time from our service users…… Black and ethnic minorities are the highest users of crimminal justice system and mental health services because they are housed in the most impoverished areas, fed lies by the media that ganster is a good thing, cannabis is so highly addictive and a psycoactive drug it is similiar in alot of ways to heroin the strands that are being made nowadays.. it is expensive, makes u gouch, makes u gurn, have withdrawrals and is culturally acceptable in many communities….. alot of Black and Ethnic minorities are under achieving from the youngest ages at school due to bullying, lack of support from family, lack of support from teachers and a notion that they will not achieve because they are black or asian….. if your parents hsve experienced institutional racism they often do not expect much more for their children unfortunately…… black snd asian culture and history is rarely embrassed in schools so they are not proud of who they are…. . Even if u are mixed white and asian you will at some point be called a paki or another derogatory term…. there is still a fall out from slavery no one is willing to adress the governments are still to offer reprimands for this…… alot of money and time is wasted debating problems but no one wants to work out solutions im afraid

  4. Russell, I indicated to this point in the blog. I devised certain induction plans that were put into National Policy during my time in prison. Indeed the PSI of Early Days in Custody (PSI 07/2015) specifically details how a prisoner is to be treated upon arrival at any HMP. Indeed I went further by developing the Insider’s Scheme back in 2005. It is however regrettable that HMP’s only do a perfunctory Induction to prison. THey should be brought to account on. A regular basis. It is preventable, I feel, that the main amount of suicides occur on the first few days in custody.

  5. Thanks very much for your comment. Sadly, I agree totally with you that many of these suicides are preventable. Deaths in custody are something we should be cutting not watching the number of tragedies grow every year.

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