06:06, February 16 165 0 theguardian.com

2020-02-16 06:06:04
A Bit of a Stretch review – an indictment of Britain’s prison system

Chris Atkins, 40, was a public-school educated, Bafta-nominated film-maker and the father of a two-year-old boy, Kit, when he was sentenced, in July 2016, to five years in jail for his part in a £2.2m film investment tax fraud scheme. As prisoner A8892DT, his first nine months were spent in the rat-infested, understaffed, under-resourced, overcrowded, uber-violent, stinking, crumbling ruin, built in 1851, that is HMP Wandsworth in south London.

A Bit of a Stretch: The Diaries of a Prisoner gives a surreal, darkly funny, at times horrifying but always humane account of what it’s like to be locked up in a dysfunctional institution in which 50% of prisoners are functionally illiterate, mental ill health is rife and it’s easier to obtain spice, a synthetic version of cannabis, than paracetamol, let alone therapeutic support.

Atkins’s first “home” is with “Ted”, convicted of possession of cocaine worth £10m, serving a 17-year sentence. Their wing, nicknamed Beirut, is a constant cacophony, not least as addicts do “the truffle shuffle” to collect their methadone. Atkins’s cell has demonic graffiti, collapsing bunk beds, a toilet behind a sheet and a cold concrete floor.

Among the lessons taught by Ted is “shitiquette”. On one occasion, he turns up the volume on the Victoria Derbyshire show on television and disappears behind the curtain. “Why do we have to listen to this crap?” Atkins asks. “So, you don’t have to listen to mine,” Ted replies.

Atkins soon volunteers for training by the Samaritans to become a “Listener” (a route to a larger cell, better pay, more visits from his son). He gives support to prisoners who are suicidal, self-harming, losing their minds. “Rob” , in his 20s, is wild-eyed, experiencing a psychotic episode. “What do you know about quantum mechanics?” he asks Atkins as they sit alone together in a cell. Atkins studied physics at Oxford. The pair discuss wave-particle duality. Then Rob leans in conspiratorially: “Sing me a song or I’ll slit your throat.”

During Atkins’s time inside, prison “reforms” cut the number of prison officers by a third. As a result, prisoners were (and are) “banged up” 23 hours a day, ending attempts to provide education, training, exercise, showers and regular contact with families – all elements that contribute to making them desist from crime.

In 2016, Wandsworth was briefly designated the first reform jail. One prisoner was asked to present a paper on the problems of being locked in a cell for 23 hours a day. He couldn’t deliver it because he was locked up in his cell for 23 hours a day. Irony is plentiful in prison.

“Banging up” means prisoners become obsessed with acquiring jobs and activities to ensure they stay outside their cell. So devout Muslims go to AA; Atkins, “a raging atheist”, attends chapel. He graduates to H wing, the Hampstead of the prison, and joins the white-collar club that includes Martyn Dodgson, a former Deutsche Bank managing director once on £601,000 a year, sentenced to four and a half years for insider trading.

Atkins and his mates have the intelligence and confidence to manipulate the system. He ends up with half a dozen jobs, “rich” enough to buy a coat with a packet of Jaffa cakes. As he points out, prison is a mirror of life on the outside; those with little receive even less.

“Dean” was 19 and had tried to hang himself several times. He was in an observation cell. “The walls are bloodstained… the bed is a rectangular piece of foam.” The loo has no privacy curtain. Dean is schizophrenic and illiterate. He believes he is being poisoned. Dean is in what Atkins calls “the dark vortex”: “Too disturbed to conform to the prison’s regime but isn’t deemed mad enough to be committed to a psychiatric unit.”

Atkins was released in December 2018, having completed his sentence in open prisons. Now, he says, he is a less judgmental man. Prison should be about loss of freedom and rehabilitation, not torment, fear, violence, addiction and loss of self-respect. He ends with recommendations. Among them are improved facilities for education, training and employment, secure psychiatric units for the mentally ill and upgraded conditions.

England and Wales have a prison population of 85,000, higher than any EU country. The reoffending rate is 48%: it is 27% in Denmark. The prison budget for 2018/19 was £4.56bn: the cost of reoffending is £15bn a year. Something isn’t working. So what’s the government’s solution? Longer sentences and 10,000 more prison places. Whether this is stupidity or vindictiveness at work, we all pay.

A Bit of a Stretch by Chris Atkins is published by Atlantic (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15

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