It’s about 10pm. I’m locked in my cell with Gary, a likeable young Scouser who is nearing the end of his sentence for smuggling cannabis.
We’re watching a film set in an American prison. Not for the first time I reflect on what a totally false impression movies give of life inside.
The on-screen criminals are muscular, tanned and seemingly possess all their faculties.
It’s a far cry from the emaciated souls addicted to spice (a synthetic cannabis) who surround me in HMP Wandsworth in South London.
There’s a jangling of keys outside and the door opens. It is Mr Hussain, one of the younger prison officers.
Chris Atkins is a BATFA-nominated documentary maker who got embroiled in a dodgy scheme to fund his latest film which saw him convicted for tax evasion and sentenced to five years in prison
‘Evening, Chris,’ he calls to me. ‘I’ve just dropped Rob off next door. He’s having a right mental.’
‘It’s not my shift,’ I reply, referring to my role as a Samaritans-trained Listener – part of a peer support service aimed at reducing suicide and self-harm in prisons.
The officer shrugs. ‘None of the other Listeners will talk to him.’
We are at the more salubrious end of H-Wing, an enormous Victorian block that forms part of Britain’s biggest jail. The ground floor is dark and deserted, except for a couple of rats sniffing around the bins.
Mr Hussain leads me to the so-called Listener Suite. Its name is deceptively flattering.
It’s two derelict cells knocked together, and contains just three plastic chairs and a revolting toilet – hardly an ideal space for giving emotional support to vulnerable inmates.
Nonetheless, this is where I do most of my work as a Listener. Waiting is Rob, a large prisoner in his late 20s.
My cell is about 6ft by 12ft. The mattresses on the bunk beds are made from heavy-duty blue plastic, designed for the easy cleaning of bodily fluids. Pictured is HMP Wandsworth
He glares at me through enormous bloodshot eyes. He’s wearing his prison clothes inside out, and is obviously having some form of psychotic episode.
After a ten-minute discussion, I congratulate myself on, I think, building up a strong rapport with him. He nods and leans in conspiratorially.
Assuming that he’s finally going to open up about his inner turmoil, I lean in, too.
Instead, Rob grins like the Grim Reaper and says: ‘Sing me a song or I’ll slit your throat.’
So how did I, a university-educated, Bafta-winning film-maker find myself banged up in one of the most notorious jails in the country? Let me be clear: I definitely did something wrong.
The bottom line is I was one of a number of people charged with tax fraud in 2014 after Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs closed tax breaks which had been introduced by the Blair Government to help boost the British film industry.
I was making low-budget documentaries and had been so desperate for funding that I turned a blind eye to the activities of our financial backers’ tax arrangements.
What I did was wrong, and I paid a heavy price.
In the summer of 2016, I was sentenced to five years (I served two and a half in jail). My spell behind bars coincided with the worst prison crisis in history.
That year there was a 27 per cent increase in prisoner assaults nationally, with attacks on staff up by 38 per cent.
The number of self-inflicted deaths had more than doubled since 2013, with 113 inmates taking their own lives.
The desperate state of our prisons is blamed on drugs and plummeting officer numbers. But for me, the main problem, which gets hardly any airtime, is that prisons are extraordinarily badly run.
If Wandsworth were a hospital, patients would be discharged with far more diseases than when they arrived. If it were a school, pupils would graduate knowing less than when they enrolled.
If Wandsworth (pictured) were a hospital, patients would be discharged with far more diseases than when they arrived
During my time at Wandsworth, the management was so grossly inept that if they were running any other part of the public sector they’d be sacked immediately. But prisons exist in a vacuum, where the authorities can tightly restrict all outgoing information and cover up their own incompetence.
Free from public scrutiny, Wandsworth and other prisons are able to continue failing on an epic scale.
A recent HM Inspectorate of Prisons report details ‘some of the most disturbing prison conditions we have ever seen – conditions which have no place in an advanced nation in the 21st Century’.
Far from being holiday camps, I saw how jails are brutalising teenagers to a lethal degree.
Prisons are supposed to rehabilitate inmates so that they don’t inflict further harm on society.
On that basis, your hard-earned taxes are being flushed down the drain, as Britain has the worst reoffending rate in Europe, with 48 per cent of ex-prisoners being convicted again within a year of release. The cost of reoffending alone is estimated at £15 billion – more than three times the entire prison budget. This means that your house may well have been burgled by someone who has already served several jail terms.
If our prisons functioned effectively, you’d still have your laptop and silverware.
Having spent years making TV documentaries, I knew the biggest barrier to capturing a decent story is access.
Even when access is granted, film-makers are often put under such tight restrictions we are only shown what they want us to see.
But in Wandsworth I was just another prisoner. This unfettered access gave me a front-row seat for the extraordinary chaos that unfolded every day.
I kept detailed notes of everything I witnessed. I hope my unvarnished account will provide a strong argument for a complete overhaul of our prison system…
July 1, 2016
The first thing that hits me is the noise: yelling, banging, screaming, grunting, barking, threatening, ranting, laughing, whining, arguing, fighting, howling, crying.
It’s as if someone has downloaded every single sound effect and is blaring them all out at once.
The reception wing looks like it last had a makeover in 1895 when Oscar Wilde was here, having been jailed for homosexuality.
It’s basically Porridge meets One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, and is full of the most terrifying individuals I have ever seen.
They mostly appear to be either severely mentally ill, off their head on drugs, or both.
What do they do all day? Smoke spice and watch Cash In The Attic on TV.
My cell is about 6ft by 12ft. The mattresses on the bunk beds are made from heavy-duty blue plastic, designed for the easy cleaning of bodily fluids.
At the back is a hideous toilet that doesn’t have a seat. There’s no privacy curtain. The floor is cold concrete, and it all smells pretty bad.
Sitting on the bottom bunk is a tanned bald man in his 60s. He has a thin face with wire-rimmed glasses and is eating his dinner off a chair while watching TV.
He introduces himself as Ted, and explains he’s just been rearrested in Spain, having absconded from a previous lengthy sentence for drug-smuggling.
I slowly unpack my things and pull out some photos of my three-year-old son, Kit.
‘Toothpaste,’ says Ted. I hand him a tube of Colgate.
‘No, you idiot! Use toothpaste to stick your photos to the wall.’ I do as instructed, and it holds surprisingly well.
Mid-morning we’re let out for an hour. In the shower room I’m overwhelmed by the stench of marijuana mixed with human waste. I now realise why the prison blogs strongly recommend flip-flops – the floor is ankle deep in razors, floss and bottles.
After that, we’re locked up for the rest of the day. I always thought inmates were coy about discussing their crimes, but Ted is more than happy to talk about his colourful career.
I tell him how I came to be in prison. Thankfully, Ted is approving of my crime, as it involved misappropriating money from the Government.
Two pieces of pink paper are shoved under the door.
‘These are the canteen sheets,’ advises Ted. We can order toiletries and groceries, which get delivered a week later. I have only 50p to spend – our daily allowance. Ted is sitting on the giddy sum of £1.
It’s darkly ironic that I’ve been convicted of conspiracy to rob £1 million and Ted has been jailed for importing £10 million of cocaine, and yet we haven’t got enough between us to buy a packet of Hobnobs.
An orderly gives me an induction booklet and I’m sent to a classroom on the landing below.
‘You need to do your English and maths tests,’ another orderly instructs. I take the assessments a tad more seriously than the other inductees – two lads are rolling joints, while an eastern European guy mutters darkly to himself.
I ask which education courses I can sign up to. I’m told: ‘None. All the main prison wings have just been shut down for the summer. Lack of staff.’
I’m confused. ‘So what do we do?’ He yawns. ‘Stay banged up in your cell. It’s gonna be like this till August.’
I’m staggered that hundreds of men are simply locked in their cells all day.
No wonder most of them are going round the twist.
I am desperate to speak to my little boy. His mother Lottie and I separated a while back but we’ve remained on very good terms and Kit spends half the week with each of us.
I’ve submitted the necessary forms to be able to use the prison phones, but there’s a four-week backlog.
Friday is canteen delivery day. Ted has invested his £1 in gravy granules. ‘There isn’t a meal here that can’t be improved with a dollop of gravy,’ he says. ‘And that includes most of the desserts.’
It’s Kit’s fourth birthday and I hit an all-time low. I haven’t received clearance to use the phones. The only female officer on duty lets me use her office phone, and I get a couple of minutes with Kit while he blows out his candles.
Later that day I get a huge bundle of letters and printed emails. I’d arranged to take Kit on holiday with friends from university, and they’ve had to go without us.
People are Facebooking photos of me playing with everyone’s kids on previous trips. It feels as close as you can get to being dead without actually dying.
On the plus side, I hear I’m going to be upgraded to a category C-Wing with lower-risk prisoners. Ted is furious that I’m abandoning him.
Liz Truss is the new Justice Secretary, taking ultimate responsibility for prisons. This surprises everyone, not least Liz Truss herself, who walks into Downing Street looking as if she knows as much about prisons as I did when I entered Wandsworth.
July 31 I’ve been moved to H-Wing – the prison’s most coveted area. My new cellmate is a stocky, squared-jawed Romanian named Dan, who’s been banged up for pickpocketing on the London Underground.
‘Welcome to the Ritz!’ calls Scott, a friendly Australian, when I venture on to the landing. ‘Come and meet the rest of the white-collar club.’
I follow him into his cell, which is more like a studio flat. There’s a separate sleeping section, and a big seating area with a large table.
A group of guys are playing board games, and Scott introduces me to his cellmate, Lance.
‘Ah, you’re Atkins. Film chap. Where did you go to school?’ Lance has a loud public-schoolboy manner that is utterly out of place.
Scott and Lance have this large cell as a perk of being Listeners. It also serves as a common room for the white-collar fraternity – there are a few lawyers and City types.
They insist that I’m welcome at any time.
Dan starts shouting at me for going out and leaving the lights on. His anger is baffling.
I can’t fathom why a Romanian pickpocket is so concerned about HMP Wandsworth’s electricity bill.
Dan starts to engage in bodily functions as loudly and frequently as possible.
Anywhere else, this display of human sound would be a source of schoolboy-type amusement, but in this confined space it’s highly destabilising. I suspect he’s trying to freak me out.
Another tactic is to refuse to say a single word to me. I’ll ask if he wants the radio or the TV on, and he’ll just completely blank me. Then while I’m watching something, he’ll aggressively grab the remote and change the channel.
Being locked up with Dan makes me feel physically threatened for the first time. I start to unravel.
I’m offered the chance to move in with Martyn, one of the white-collar convicts. My whole body lifts as if being pulled by an invisible string.
August 5 I’m delighted with my new cellmate. Martyn has an infectiously cheerful manner, and my mood takes a dramatic swing upwards.
He used to be the managing director of Deutsche Bank, but was convicted of insider trading and got four-and-a-half years.
‘Why don’t you come to chapel on Sunday?’ he asks. I tell him I’m an atheist, so it would be grossly hypocritical.
‘You’ll get the whole morning out of the cell.’ ‘I’m in!’
My son Kit is finally coming to visit. I have no idea what impact the past five weeks will have had on him. I’ve had nightmares about him not recognising me, or refusing to talk.
I walk into the visits hall looking like an emaciated Robinson Crusoe. Kit sprints up and hugs me tight. ‘Daddy! Read me a story!’
He sits on my lap while I read him several Mr Men books. We don’t talk about why Daddy is living in this strange building.
Despite the bizarre surroundings, it is extremely uplifting to sit with him for just a little while. It’s like I’ve been watching an incomprehensible film in Russian and someone has briefly turned on the subtitles.
It’s like mainlining my old life again and helps me see tiny specks of light at the end of a long, dark tunnel.
I assumed the visit would boost my spirits, but it suddenly hits me that I’m only allowed two visits a month. I won’t see Kit again for another fortnight.
I stagger back to my cell feeling as if my foundations have just been detonated. A sign proclaims that ‘maintaining family ties is vital for prisoners’ rehabilitation’.
This was recently echoed by Liz Truss, who said ‘a prisoner’s family is the most effective resettlement agency’. Given the derisory visits allowance, these statements just twist the knife even further.
Lance sticks his head around our door. ‘There are a couple of jobs going, handing out visit notification slips,’ he says.
‘They offered it to me but I simply cannot be f*****.’
This presents a fantastic opportunity to worm my way into the officers’ good books and perhaps qualify for so-called enhanced status and an increased number of visits from Kit. Martyn and I snap up the jobs.
There’s a lot in the news about Islamic extremism in prisons. Liz Truss wants to set up specialist units to keep dangerous extremists away from other inmates and stop the spread of poisonous ideologies. I’d agree that prisons are ideal places to exploit weak minds.
The obvious way to prevent radicalisation is to improve conditions, but Truss’s solution seems to be the exact opposite.
She intends to separate and segregate those at risk, and quarantine the potential terrorists together.
She’s found a pot of money to tackle the spread of extremism, but not for easing general overcrowding.
Martyn and I are racking up a few jobs around the prison now. One of his is running the prison’s Alcoholics Anonymous group.
He admits that he’s not actually an alcoholic, but the job gets him out of the cell for an extra hour on Wednesday evenings.
He returns from his first session mildly miffed. ‘It’s full of Muslims, who are all teetotal anyway,’ he complains. ‘They’re just doing it for the bloody unlock.’
He fails to notice the irony.
I’m chatting with Lance when Officer O’Reilly runs in. ‘We’ve just found a noose in some idiot’s cell. Can you come and talk to him?’
In his role as a Listener, Lance is on call 24/7 to deal with those who are suicidal or self-harming.
Scott is the head Listener in Wandsworth, and he takes it really seriously. ‘It’s the only worthwhile thing I’ve done inside,’ he tells me.
Scott encourages me to sign up. ‘It will make a big difference to you,’ he says. ‘It’ll definitely change the way you look at the world – and there are some great perks.’
I tell him to put my name down.
A complete rebrand of the jail’s population has been announced. It’s been decreed by the authorities we will no longer be called ‘prisoners’ but will henceforth be referred to as ‘men’.
The feeling is that calling us ‘men’ will somehow reduce reoffending. We all agree that this rebrand will go down a storm on G-Wing, where most of the ‘men’ haven’t showered for five days.
Today is the selection day for Listener training and I make the grade. Maybe I will be happier now that I’m doing something really useful.
Little do I know that becoming a Listener will bring me into contact with far more misery than I’d ever have experienced if I’d been turned down… and open my eyes to our brutal prison system at its very worst.
© Chris Atkins, 2020
A Bit Of A Stretch, by Chris Atkins, is published by Atlantic next month, priced £16.99. Offer price £13.59 (20 per cent discount) until February 18. To pre-order, call 01603 648 155 or go to mailshop.co.uk. Free delivery on all orders – no minimum spend.