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The Vulnerable Prisoner Wing.

Updated: Feb 21

For some Safer Lives clients, prison is a distinct possibility or inevitability. This blog gives a brief explanation of what to expect. It is based on director Andy Green's experience of working in Category A, B and C prisons in England.

The first 24 hours

As you await sentencing in court, the sudden presence of two security guards by your side can signal that you are about to receive a prison sentence. In this case, they will escort you to a holding cell in the bridewell, where you'd await transport to a local Category B prison in a designated ‘sweat-box’ van. These prisons, often Victorian institutions like HMP Leeds (Armley), HMP Birmingham (Winson Green), HMP Wormwood Scrubs, or HMP Bristol, are typically situated in the same city or town as the court.

You would be driven in through the prison's gate to a Reception building, where administrative procedures take place, including the assignment of a unique prison number. A brief body inspection ensures no unauthorised items are concealed, after which you'd change into prison clothing. Personal items permitted within the prison, including clothing, are returned to you, while prohibited items are catalogued and stored in large, transparent bags and kept by the prison in a property store. This bag of belongings accompanies you throughout any future prison transfers.

A link to permitted items is provided at the end of this blog. Be sure to take a notepad with essential information in it such as the phone numbers and addresses of your closest family and friends.

From Reception you would be directed or taken to a 'first-night centre' for further assessment and processing, typically spending one night there before transitioning to a main accommodation wing the following day. These assessments include medical evaluations and discussion about previous housing, in case you have left people or pets who need care in your absence. While you may be granted a supervised phone call, unsupervised calls are restricted until the numbers provided have been verified as being appropriate.

Vulnerability assessments, including suicide risk, are conducted, and allocation to the Vulnerable Prisoner (VP) wing is typically offered to segregate and keep you safe you from the standard prison population. Unless you have significant objections to this, you should accept it.

The first week and beyond.

VP wings are relatively calm places. You will begin to acclimatise to the rigid routine and challenges of prison life. Cell-sharing is expected, and a good pad-mate will help you to understand prison life. You should expect to spend most of each day in your cell, where you will sleep, eat, use the toilet, and watch television. The quality of food is generally poor, and cell conditions are cramped and uncomfortable. It's likely that the cell will be either too hot or too cold. Boredom and being alone with your thoughts is often the most difficult aspect of imprisonment. Take anything that will keep you busy and requires concentration, and is permitted, like puzzle books, self-help books, favourite novels, playing cards.

When you are allowed out of your cell, you will notice that you are not the most vulnerable person on the wing, by far. Although a majority of people on a VP wing will have been working and living functional lives before being arrested, others will be on the wing because of their vulnerability due to infirmity, poor mental health, learning disability, severe personality traits or because they are in debt to prisoners on other wings and can’t be otherwise protected.

An 'offender supervisor' from the Offender Management Unit (OMU) would typically visit you during the first week to explain your assigned category and the prison you are nominally allocated to for a move-on. If categorised as a Category C prisoner, you should expect a move to a Category C prison within a few weeks. This prison would either have a VP wing or be exclusively for sex offenders.  

Your placement on a VP wing improves your safety but limits your access to some facilities. A move to an exclusive sex offender prison, such as HMPs Whatton, Stafford, Bure, or Littlehey, would offer greater access to facilities and rehabilitative programmes.

Category C prisons have a calmer environment, a lighter regime and a greater range of prison employment and education opportunities, and better access to gym facilities. However, these prisons tend to be more remotely located, and more difficult to travel to, especially if you visitors rely on public transport.

Useful information

Prisons are monolithic and centred on security, with any interactions outside of the walls taking second stage. They are modernising very slowly, but each prison is quite different in how they engage with the outside world. Google each prison for information on what you can take with you, visiting information, outside communications, training and rehabilitative opportunities, and how to use money inside. Most prisons have a visitors' centre outside of the walls, run by a charity. They are available to help family members and visitors to better understand how they can visit and support you, including transferring money and bringing in clothing and personal items.

If you want Safer Lives to prepare you for court processes and potential imprisonment, then please book in for a consultation. Visit our homepage here.

For a list of prison permitted items, please click here.

For information on how to book prison visits, click here.

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