Sharing cells, open showers and masturbation: What privacy in prison is really like
by Ryan Foster
Privacy doesn’t exist in prison.
Within minutes of arrival from court, you will be strip searched. And depending on the officer doing the search, that may involve squatting.
From there on in, nothing is private. Cells are usually shared by two inmates; they’re around the size of the average family bathroom, with a bunk bed, sink, toilet, a table and a couple of cupboards.
Once the door is closed for the night, it won’t open until the morning – no matter how much shouting and screaming you do. If you need to use the toilet, you might be lucky and have a shower curtain-style screen around it to allow a little privacy – but some cells don’t even have these.
It’s a very strange experience to be lying on your bed while a complete stranger is using the toilet about three feet away from you, in open view. From my experience, inmates try to give each other as much privacy as they can because they know how little there is.
In the bathrooms on the landings, there was a toilet in each one with a half-height door. It was impossible not to notice who was using it wh en you walk into the room, but as a matter of courtesy, even if it was one of my friends, I wouldn’t engage them in conversation.
The first prison I was sent to had open-ish showers.
There were four showers separated by waist-height walls. They gave a little privacy but not a great deal. The changing area was completely open and it wasn’t possible to dress with any privacy – the door into the shower room had a window open to the wing, and anybody passing by, including female officers, could look in.
Prison officers regularly patrol the landings but rarely venture into the showers so, of course, this is where scores are settled and deals are done.
I spent most of my sentence in an antiquated Cat-B local prison, which had a slightly different arrangement. There were bathrooms on each of the four floors of the wing. Each had three shower cubicles, about the size of the average public toilet. They too had waist-height swing doors to preserve a little modesty, but full-height walls on both sides. It was possible to undress, wash and redress (mostly) in these without getting too wet.
There are lots of stories circulating about what goes on in prison showers. In my experience, there is the occasional sexual contact but that’s rarely non-consensual. Sex in prison does happen between men – sometimes between men who would never consider it on the outside.
And of course, masturbation is something of an issue.
Men do have their physical needs and, when sharing a cell, it can be very difficult to get any privacy to satisfy such needs. It’s very common for men to masturbate in the showers as that’s the highest level of privacy they can find. One inmate refused to use the showers and chose to strip wash in his cell instead because he once stepped in what he called ‘man jelly’.
Due to the lack of privacy, it’s inevitable that masturbation will occur in the presence of others. Some cell mates came up with arrangements, like once they turned their lights off at night, they say nothing, don’t react, and let them get on with it. Others openly talked about it and got on with it at the same time. And some did it together – not necessarily gay – but ‘prison gay’, where they would interact with each other.
A young man I was aware of was caught masturbating simply by being spotted through the observation window in his cell door. He was alone in his cell, not making an exhibition of himself, but an officer looked in on him at the wrong moment. He was then humiliated by being forced to explain himself in front of a female governor and was subsequently punished.
Masturbation isn’t technically banned in UK prisons, neither is sexual contact between inmates. Nudity isn’t allowed openly on wings for obvious reasons but a prison cell is also considered to be a public space. Every cell door has an observation window that any officer can look into at any time of the day or night.
Prison rules disallow any act that might be considered obscene or offensive so if an officer were to see you either masturbating or engaged in a sexual activity, or even just being naked, they could report that if they personally found it offensive.
I was once caught in the act but the officer, through her own discretion, didn’t report it. Privacy for me was a little different. I like my own company and like to be alone – this is something I didn’t realise until I spent some time inside.
In prison you’re always with somebody – with your cell mate, your inmate colleagues while at work around the prison, or people coming to your cell for a chat. I really loved the odd hour or two, maybe only once a month, of just being in my cell, on my own; it was so nice just to relax and be alone. In the real world, I’m a very private person – even with those closest to me. I don’t use public toilets – I always try to get home – but in prison that’s different. You don’t have that option and have to use a toilet in full view of a complete stranger. It’s a very, very strange thing to have to do. I’ve not changed since I’ve got out but a strip search wouldn’t concern me at all now. And I could use a toilet in front of a stranger without any screening, but I choose not to. The lack of privacy was nothing more than being pointlessly degrading.
But, that’s all part of the prison system.