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Myths, legends, and downright lies!

Like any strange world, the world of prison has its own myths and legends. Having spent so long behind the walls myself, I have probably heard most of them. Some of them are funny, some scary, and others are downright strange. The trouble is that prisoners have too much time on their hands and most of them love a good story. Let us not forget that in-cell televisions, radios, and even in-cell electricity is a relatively new development in the history of the British prison system. Up until the early 1990s the prison television was a communal one and usually limited to one hour in the evening on weekdays. So, the only in-cell entertainment was reading in a single cell or talking if you were in a double or treble cell. The boredom of prison, with no electrical devices of leisure is the perfect Petri dish for the creation of yore, legend, and bullshit. 

Tall tales

I still remember the stories that were taken as gospel when I was a juvenile prisoner back in the 1970s; things like – the screws have got an armoury in every top-security jail, and in the event of war they will open it, go around the Category ‘A’ cells and shoot the prisoners. Or – the Home Office gets paid by commercial airlines to designate all inner-city prisons as crash landing sites for aircraft in trouble, rather than crashing them onto the general population. And – the Government is putting bromide in prisoners’ tea, so as to stop homosexuality in prisons. Or – there is a huge king rat that has a den under one of the wings in Wormwood Scrubs and controls all the vermin in that prison. How about – you can bend the bars and escape with a wet towel; porridge being served in prison is actually Grade 3 Canadian pig-meal; Dartmoor screws carry rifles when guarding prisoners in the quarry; if you don’t eat breakfast on the day of your release you will be back in prison soon; if you leave your name on a cell wall it means you will be back to see it; HMP Wandsworth has the last working gallows and they test it every six months; the SAS test every new prison for escape possibilities and can break out of any prison in 3 minutes; if your cellmate kills himself you will be released immediately on compassionate grounds; and myriad other tales of nonsense and faint fact.

Truth be told

Let’s look at them. Are there guns available to shoot Category ‘A’ prisoners? Perhaps it was an idea back in the days when there were less than 50 Category ‘A’ prisoners in the country – these days there are so many they would need machine guns. Does the Government designate prisons as crash landing sites? Very doubtful – as aiming a crashing airliner at a prison in a highly populated area would call for extraordinary skill and luck. Bromide in the tea? Very doubtful – as Bromide can poison you, given the wrong dose. A huge king rat? I heard about this in the 1980s, but it has never actually been seen. Bending the bars with a wet towel? According to physics this would be possible, but the torque needed would be beyond human strength. Being served Grade 3 Canadian pig-meal? This one is true; I’ve worked in prison kitchens and actually seen the sacks. Rifles at Dartmoor? Once again, this is true, but they were taken away in 1971. The last gallows? It is true that Wandsworth has the last gallows but it was last tested in the 1980s. SAS, prison breakers? Partly true, they have been used to test security in new prisons in the past. Unfortunately, if your cellmate kills himself in front of you all you will get is sympathy and a cell move. As for not eating your last breakfast, or writing your name on a prison wall as a surefire way of returning – absolute nonsense!

Do not believe everything you hear in prison!


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