I recently finished reading A Bit of a Stretch, the startling memoir by BAFTA-nominated filmmaker Chris Atkins. I liked the look of the book; it was bright blue, with cheerful yellow accents and a picture of a bowl of porridge on the front cover. Also on the front cover were the words, 'The Diaries of a Prisoner', and ultimately it was these words that piqued my interest enough to buy the book.
I'm glad I did. Like the majority of the UK population, I had next to no knowledge about the state of prisons in my own country, and why would I? Out of sight, out of mind; I haven't met anyone directly who has been through the prison system (not that I know of anyway!) and things are kept pretty hush-hush, as I soon learnt through reading Atkins' personal account. Most people don't know what goes on behind bars, and also, I don't think many people actually care. When we think of hardened criminals, images of unpleasant, aggressive men usually spring to mind, and once they're taken away to prison all images in general pretty much cease - prison is a place that we forget exists, most of the time. Reading this book is like being shoved into prison itself, with all its glaring, horrific violations of human dignity. You wonder why a man like Atkins has even ended up in prison himself, but he goes onto explain how he unwittingly got involved in a dodgy tax scheme to fund one of his films. Producing controversial documentaries does have its risks anyway, but Atkins admits that it was arrogance and ego that eventually led him to being banged up, rather than greed. There is still a disconnection between Atkins and his inmates; he is one of the very few white, middle-class leftie men in the prison, and his inexperience with this side of the law becomes apparent as he navigates his way through a place frequented by some of the most scary, vulnerable and unfortunate of society's civilians.
This book stands out to me. I was going to say that I really enjoyed it, but I'm not sure I can honestly say that I enjoyed reading about incarcerated grown men self-harming and the difficulty that lies in acquiring a packet of instant noodles. Having said that, Atkins weaves dark humour throughout, and I found myself laughing aloud at times, but this laughter was quickly dispelled several sentences later when I read about Atkins being denied visits from his three-year-old son due to him needing a 'criminal check' (the son, not the author. Yeah.) The memoir was pacy, frequently shocking and intensely frustrating, mostly due to the shocking aspects. It's full of references - news articles, documentaries, statistics, the lot. Atkins really paints a picture of the historical and cultural context of the time; he was inside from July 2016, just after the Brexit referendum. He frequently comments on the politics of the time, the influence of the then-Secretary of State for Justice Liz Truss and her Conservative counterpart Chris Grayling. It's a straightforward read simply because Atkins gives a lot of background information, which is helpful if you're a complete prison dummy, but certainly not straightforward in other aspects. If you thought you knew how bad prisons were, think again.
I used to work at a hotel that was, quite frankly, complete shambles in terms of its staff turnover, administration and management. I remember how frustrated I used to get, and upset because ultimately it was the customers who were suffering. Reading about how HMP Wandsworth was 'managed' triggered me all over again, because Atkins makes it seem as if the jail was falling apart at the seams. The constant understaffing coupled with the overcrowding of prisoners is, of course, a recipe for disaster, but it's because of the lack of staff that everything else in the prison seems to unravel. Staff shortages lead to many, many prisoners being unable to attend classes and educational courses that might actually prove useful to them in the long run. The shocking lack of mental health intervention is the reason why so many prisoners are banged up for more than 24 hours a day, and why the suicide rate has been climbing steadily over the past few years. The desperation for more staff leads to hiring men and women who are clearly not trained to deal with the array of issues that can be found in prison, and stops significant paperwork from being processed. There are lots of other catch-22s, it seems, such as recovering addicts being placed in wings where the majority of prisoners are completely off their heads on spice. Reporting anything is practically impossible when you're locked up in a cell for most of the day.
I know I made the comparison between my former workplace and HMP Wandsworth, but of course they are nothing alike. Prison is no hotel, as lots of people seem to think, and I would argue that conditions certainly need to be improved to, in the long run, stop criminals reoffending and therefore making the public a lot safer. Atkins talked a lot about finding shards of light amid the darkness, and the difficulty of forming relationships with people he knew had broken the law for all sorts of reasons. I wasn't totally surprised to read that children with a parent in prison are three times as likely to be involved in crime, and 65% of boys with a convicted father will go on to offend themselves*. Many of the prisoners had problematic backgrounds, but just as equally there were prisoners who had made terrible decisions and been driven by violence, greed and arrogance. One of the facts that surprised me was how so many prisoners were illiterate; Atkins spent a lot of time drafting documents for various inmates, and this put him in a good position. As I discovered, the system inside is pretty much built on bartering and brown-nosing. Prisoners find any number of small ways to reap success, and keep them feeling like they have some sort of control.
It was this idea of control that had me seriously reflecting on what I'd read and what I'd experienced. In light of reading this book, I've been thinking about the pandemic, and how a huge part of it revolves around staying at home, isolated - much like prisoners in a cell. The conditions, of course, aren't similar at all (you'd be lucky to get a clean toilet, decent mattress and change of clothes in prison) but this whole idea of being confined definitely will resonate with pretty much everyone at this point in time. Atkins mentioned at one point in the book that prison doesn't need to be awful because the punishment is simply being in prison itself. The punishment is the lack of control, the lack of stability, the fact that you feel as if you don't exist to the outside world, that you have no impact on what takes place, the severing of your closest relationships. Right now, I believe most of us are facing a crisis because we feel as if our identities have been stripped simply because we are not really living. The very act of staying in your house seems like a simple thing, right? The crazy reality is that it has turned out to be one of the hardest things we've ever experienced. So much of our life is about our relationships, what we spend our time doing, what we learn, how we contribute to society. Without these things we are still very much human, but we are merely existing. Other animals eat and sleep and fight for survival. So do we, but what separates us from other animals is all the other amazing things that we are capable of achieving, the complex intricacies of our lives.
Making this blog post live isn't going to change the prison system. None of us will really be able to make an impact (besides, the government is so set on clowning about that our attempts to catch their attention about anything would be futile anyway.) What we can do is make people aware, and focus on our relationships with people - prevent people from making those decisions that will ultimately land them banged up, and faced with perilous conditions that no-one should be faced with. Whether you agree with criminals being treated fairly or not, the taxpayer's money is still going towards a crumbling system, and Britain has the worst rate of reoffending in Europe**.
As for liberty, take that sh*t for granted. We are luckier than we'll ever realise.
A Bit of a Stretch can be purchased at all major bookstores. Chris Atkins also has a podcast of the same name dedicated to the testimonies of ex-prisoners.