In all six prisons, new arrivals generally stayed on a separate wing or landing for the first night or few nights in custody (see Section 2 for details). Help of various kinds was made available on all the first night units, but the general facilities, physical environment and regime on the units varied from prison to prison.
Participants cited a range of practical problems they faced, including hygiene, diet, clean clothing, and exercise.The most common concerns were a lack access to a shower, and food. Some of their needs clearly reflected the effect of overcrowding in lowering standards. One described being placed in a cell on the induction wing with four others. For almost four hours, the five of them were left in the single cell, without explanation, while officers were working to complete the reception process for other newly arrived prisoners.
The harshest criticisms were voiced by the CompW participants who described cells in a ‘disgusting state’ and ‘noisy and cramped’, and reported a lack of bedding and clean clothes. One participant spoke about cockroaches, and another said that it was
‘dehumanizing’ having a toilet at the end of the bed in a shared cell (a point that was also made by a CompE participant).
Six of the 15 CompW participants spoke about the extremely limited shower facilities on the first night unit – which could mean waiting up to a week for a shower.This was particularly difficult for those who had come to the prison after a few days in a police cell, or those who had been suffering withdrawals. Similarly, a woman participant said that she had been in police cells for three days, ‘so I needed a shower desperately’. On the evening she arrived in reception, she asked for a shower and was told she could have one in the morning.
Participants in Exeter and CompW also criticised the lack of time for association and exercise on the first night unit.
Not all participants expressed views on the quality of the environment and facilities in the first night units; and the views that did emerge were mixed. In all the prisons but CompW and Exeter, some participants spoke of the stay on the first night unit as being helpful. Among the most positive were two women in CompH – both first-time
prisoners – who stressed that the clean and welcoming environment of the first night unit had meant a great deal to them, as described in Box 5.3.
None of the other participants were as strong in their praise of the first night facilities as the two quoted in Box 5.3. But some others talked, for example, of the first night unit being ‘very cosy’ and a place where you could ‘calm down’ (both Holloway); and, ‘a comfortable environment for first-time prisoners’ (CompE). Another participant
described arriving on the first night unit in Wandsworth and immediately being provided with bedding, a shower and so on: ‘Everything’s catered for … [although] after that you’re on your own.’
From the interviews with the Holloway participants in particular, a clear dilemma emerged in relation to the provision of high-quality first night facilities. In Holloway, the first night accommodation differs quite markedly from that in the rest of the prison: for example, the cells and corridor are carpeted, there are curtains, and the beds are pine rather than metal. This, some indicated, can make the move from the first night unit into a regular wing very difficult.The gap between conditions on first night centres and normal location echoes a finding of Harvey’s study.While first night units can help to relieve the stress of the transition, it can be upsetting to settle in, only to be moved again.
A Holloway participant stated emphatically that several first-time prisoners found it a ‘shock’ to move from the first night unit to normal location.The first night unit, she said, gives a ‘false sense of security’ about what life in prison is like. One prisoner was ‘screaming’ when she was taken off the unit, and had then to be put on suicide watch. Another
respondent said that moving people from the first night unit, where they might have been able to relax and make friends, is ‘not fair … It’s like playing with people’s emotions.’ A third Holloway participant asked PRT:
What’s the point of giving people false hopes by putting them in [the first night unit]? … You’re put on there to help you clam down, but by Monday [or when you are moved]
you’re going to have to go through all the rigmarole again, all the emotions.
Also in Holloway, a first-time prisoner said that she had been particularly distressed when she was brought (by the pact worker) to the first night unit and was told that she would be there for two nights only: ‘I said, “Oh God, what am I going to do?”’ She was extremely worried that just as she learnt how the system worked, she would be moved and would have to start all over again.
Box 5.3 A welcoming environment
Ms J told the interviewer that when she was shown into her room, she found that the bed was made, and there were toiletries and curtains; and an officer asked if she wanted water. Seeing this, she breathed ‘a sigh of relief’.There was ‘a big fluffy towel and a small towel.’ Now Ms J has a job in Induction, and because she knows how much these things matter, she tries to make it the same for others.
When Ms J came into her room, the girls who had cleaned it had folded down the bed and put the shampoos out nicely. ‘It was like a welcome to me – it was a wonderful thing to do – made a huge difference – specially after three days in a police station.’ While the care taken over the bed and shampoos was just ‘a little gesture’, it was very important, because when you enter prison, ‘you become dehumanised in a way.’
A participant in Exeter directly addressed the dilemma associated with providing special accommodation for new arrivals: ‘You shouldn’t let people settle then upheave them. But you can’t just throw people on the main wing because of what people get up to.’