Nine Months in Wandsworth

Mike Phipps reviews A bit of a stretch: the diaries of a prisoner, by Chris Atkins, published by Atlantic, price £16.99

Chris Atkins, a BAFTA-nominated documentary film-maker, suddenly found himself facing a 5 year prison sentence in July 2016 after being convicted of tax fraud, following a dubious financial scheme to fund his latest project.  His first nine months were spent in what one reviewer described as “the rat-infested, understaffed, under-resourced, overcrowded, uber-violent, stinking, crumbling ruin, built in 1851, that is HMP Wandsworth in south London.”

This book is his prison diary of that time, before he was finally moved to the comparative luxury of an open prison. It is an indictment of the entire system, Orwellian and Kafkaesque in its pointless rules and counter-productive procedures. On his arrival, a book of cryptic crosswords is confiscated, because it contains “coded messages which are not readily intelligible or decipherable.” Prisons suffer from too few officers and a surfeit of drugs, he observes, but the key problem is that they are just badly run. “The management was so grossly inept that if they were running any other part of the public sector, they’d be immediately sacked.”

Prisoners are locked down for long periods due to staff shortages, unable to work or study. The antiquated communications system means that written notice of a doctor’s appointment is frequently given to the prisoner after the date has gone by. While the management engage in endless rebranding exercises, for example redefining “prisoners” as “men”, piles of refuse go uncollected and mental health problems and rates of self-harm spiral out of control.

While Atkins was at Wandsworth, an 18 year old committed suicide. Arrested for stealing sweets, he was found with a noose around his neck on five separate occasions. “The authorities treated his mental illness as bad behaviour, and he was sent to the punishment bock.” The night he died, he pressed the emergency button but officers took over half an hour to respond. The inquest into his death found this delay contributed to his death.

Self-harm was rife in Wandsworth. Atkins joined the Listener programme, initiated by the Samaritans, regularly talking to prisoners in distress. This itself was traumatic:  he personally saw dozens of prisoners cutting themselves each week – and he covered only a small part of the prison – yet the government claimed in a parliamentary answer that there were only 118 incidents of self-harm at the prison in the whole of 2016, a complete fiction.

A key cause of self-harm was “bang-up”. Most inmates were confined to their cells 23 hours a day, disrupting study, work and effective rehabilitation.  There’s a lot of dark comedy in Atkins’ diary – for example, the prisoners who claimed to be adherents of three different religions, just as a way of getting out of their cells. For the same reason, Atkins himself volunteered for everything available – staring with a course in “dry lining” although he had no idea what it was until he started.

Acute staff shortages help explain why prisoners are locked up for long periods at short notice, unable to exercise or work. They explain why many have to wear the same clothes for a fortnight or are not permitted to shower.

Mental distress is also exacerbated by prison’s drug of choice: spice – “the reason why 50% of prisoners look like extras in a zombie film”. It doesn’t show up in standard drugs tests and is undetectable to sniffer dogs. An estimated on one in five addicts picked up their habit while serving their sentence.

Britain has the worst reoffending rates in Europe, with 48% of its prisoners reconvicted within one year of being released. Prisoners have so little control over their environment, and are subject to such random and arbitrary treatment, that they lose their sense of agency. Psychologists call this “learned helplessness”. Self-harm was one response to this: an attempt to reassert a degree of control over oneself.  After nine months in Wandsworth, even the comparatively privileged, well-educated and connected Atkins found transfer to an open prison scarily shocking.

Privatisation intensified the misery. Wandsworth’s crumbling 160 year-old infrastructure was supposedly maintained by Carillion, the private company which went bust in 2017. They were awarded the contract by the then Justice Secretary Chris Grayling, although it later emerged that to get it, they had underbid by £15 million. Long delays at fixing basic amenities, including running water, led the head of the Prison Governors Association to conclude: “These contracts have failed in their entirety.”

Atkins concludes his memoir with some significant policy reform proposals. Many more secure mental health units are needed, so officials were not forced to spend so much time dealing with a small minority of severely mentally ill individuals. More officers are needed: “teachers sit in empty classrooms, as there aren’t enough officers to unlock inmates for lessons.” Atkins recounts how one inmate wrote so impressive a report on the negative impact of “incessant bang-up” that his supervisor arranged for him to present it to a meeting of senior management. When he failed to show up, she went to his cell and he told her he was unable to present his study on being locked in a cell all day, as he had been locked in a cell all day.

Healthcare is compromised because prisoners are unable to attend medical appointments. More medical staff and facilities are needed and guards should not have the power to prevent prisoners from attending vital treatment. In his final days, Atkins’ cellmate came close to death due to the refusal of untrained staff to take his medical condition seriously.

More open prisons are needed. They are cheaper to run and increase the likelihood of offenders getting paid jobs. Those who do so are much less likely to reoffend. For similar reasons, more educational opportunities are needed. Half of prisoners are functionally illiterate.

Prison numbers doubled between 1993 and 2012, the result of “a long-running political arms race.” Britain has the highest prison population in Europe. Numbers need to be cut. Indefinite sentences were abolished in 2012, but in 2018 there were still 2,000 prisoners in the system who were over their original tariff.

On prison visits, if the authorities genuinely believe that these are key to rehabilitation, then they should be allocated more humanely. There are over 30,000 children with parents in prison and denying them access violates their rights. Atkins’ inability to see his two-year old son regularly in his early days in jail was the source of immense stress.

Atkins proposes a number of specific changes that would improve prisoner dignity, including the right to wear one’s own clothes, better access to telephones- a major source of frustration and violence – and an end to the inefficient and bureaucratic operation of a paper administration system.

All of this will require investment. The prison budget in 2017-18 was £4.34 billion, but the cost of reoffending was more than three times that. It will also require a change in public attitudes. As long as the tabloid-fuelled belief persists that prisons are like holiday camps and as long as prisoners themselves have no vote or public voice, there is little political mileage for career politicians in making the vital changes that this powerful book advocates.