CHRIS ATKINS reveals life inside HMP Wandsworth

Heroin, cocaine and crack were on tap… but I couldn’t get paracetamol for a cold after 4pm: CHRIS ATKINS reveals life inside HMP Wandsworth after being jailed for tax fraud

  • When he was jailed over a film tax scam, Chris Atkins kept a prison diary 
  • He explains why criminal justice as a whole is failing on an epic scale 
  • He has revealed how his life was threatened inside Wandsworth prison 

When he was jailed over a film tax scam, Chris Atkins kept a prison diary – and the compelling entries are a damning indictment of a system that has simply become a breeding ground for more crime. 

Last week, the documentary-maker revealed how his life was threatened on numerous occasions inside the intimidating Wandsworth prison, despite his efforts to help vulnerable inmates. 

Here, in the final part of our serialisation, he explains why criminal justice as a whole is failing on an epic scale.

Chris with young son Kit and Kit’s mother Lottie during a prison visit

My cellmate has terrible news. ‘There’s been another suicide,’ he says. Details are sketchy, but the victim is a Lithuanian teenager with severe mental health problems on remand for shoplifting sweets.

He was found hanging after he’d rung the emergency bell in his cell and it had gone unanswered for more than half an hour. Some of those who work here at Wandsworth Prison as Listeners – part of a peer support service aimed at reducing suicide and self-harm – had sat with him before he died, and they’re in a bad way.

My knees go weak when I hear this. I’m just about to start training with the Samaritans as a Listener myself, and I’m suddenly hit by the grim reality of what I’m going to be dealing with. I’m no expert, but it seems obvious that many of these troubled young people need urgent psychiatric care, which they would get in any other walk of life. But in our brutally mismanaged jails, teenagers are shouted at like animals and locked up in a concrete box. Many do not survive.

Staff shortages coupled with inmates being confined to their cells for dehumanising amounts of time mean prisons are now morphing into warehouses for the mentally ill. This is just one of many aspects of our desperate and outdated penal system crying out for urgent reform.

October 28, 2016

The Listener training takes place in the main chapel. We learn that although it’s often counter-productive to try to persuade suicidal people that life is worth living, getting them to talk about their distress can pull them back from the brink.

It’s a lot to take in. Everything else I’ve encountered in Wandsworth has been banal and inconsequential, but Listening is deadly serious.

October 29

An elderly prisoner pops his head around the door. He has severe arthritis and is rudely ungrateful to anyone giving him assistance. ‘They’ve just made me equalities officer,’ he says. ‘What the f*** did they do that for?’

This is a privileged position requiring him to help victims of discrimination. There are, however, two key problems:

1) He is so incapacitated that he can barely get out of bed unaided, so stands no chance of navigating the prison’s numerous stairs.

2) He is notoriously racist, sexist and homophobic, so he may struggle to protect minorities from such abuse.

Last week, the documentary-maker revealed how his life was threatened on numerous occasions inside the intimidating Wandsworth prison (pictured), despite his efforts to help vulnerable inmates

November 3

Justice Secretary Liz Truss announces that jails are going to get the biggest overhaul in a generation. Wandsworth is to be one of the country’s first ‘reform prisons’, spearheading her radical new policies, with our governor, Ian Bickers, given unprecedented powers to control his own budget. He has pledged to turn the prison around in 18 months. Most unhelpfully to Ms Truss, the Prison Officers’ Association (POA) announces that conditions in our jails are ‘lawless’ and ‘like a bloodbath’.

November 5

Governor Bickers has come up with a bold solution to address the officer shortages. He is creating a ‘Purple Army’ of trusted prisoners in purple shirts who will take on basic admin tasks, freeing up officers for other duties. It sounds like a good idea, so I apply.

November 7

We are visited by two women from the Rehabilitation Of Addicted Prisoners Trust. One new inmate tells them that he’s desperate to avoid the Substance Recovery Unit, where he’s due to be housed.

‘I was there on my last sentence,’ he says. ‘I’m clean now, and I can’t go back to the rehab wing as it’s full of junkies and drugs. I’ll end up using again.’ This is a common complaint. The very wing where inmates are supposed to get clean is the easiest place to obtain drugs. The women from the rehabilitation trust are unmoved by his pleas.

November 14

We discover that Osvaldas Pagirys, the Lithuanian teenager who took his own life, barely spoke any English. Days before his death, he was assessed by a mental health nurse but not allowed an interpreter. She couldn’t understand what he was saying, and decided he was safe to be put in the punishment block.

November 15

The POA has gone on strike despite being legally banned from doing so. Liz Truss wins a High Court ruling to stop their action. Their walkout doesn’t seem a very good example for the officers to be setting us criminals.

November 17

Some European academics visit to discuss rehabilitation. My cellmate Martyn – the former managing director of Deutsche Bank who is serving time for insider trading – and I spend the afternoon chatting to Scandinavian professors. One, a Dane, remarks to Martyn that the landings are quiet. ‘Where are the prisoners?’ he asks.

‘Banged up,’ replies Martyn.

The professor is perplexed. ‘What is ‘banged up?’ ‘

‘The cells are locked all day.’

‘So where are the prisoners if the cells are locked?’

‘In their cells.’

‘But how do they go to classes and workshops?’

‘They don’t.’

Our visitor looks amazed. The Danes have a progressive attitude towards incarceration, focusing on education and training rather than punishment. Only 27 per cent of Danish prisoners reoffend, compared with 48 per cent in the UK.

HMP Wandsworth (pictured) in south west London was built in 1851 and is one of the largest prisons in Western Europe

November 22

I accidentally slice my finger on a razor blade while trying to repair my glasses. I call the night officer who says he’ll try to find a plaster. Half an hour later he tells me: ‘Bad news. We don’t even have a first-aid kit.’

I’m extremely fortunate never to have needed serious medical treatment at Wandsworth. At one point, though, I catch man flu and head to the meds hatch. I wait while all the recovering addicts are given their medication, then say: ‘I’ve got flu. Can I have some paracetamol?’

The nurse shakes her head. ‘We can’t dispense it after 4pm.’

‘Why not?’

‘Those are the rules.’

‘But you’ve just handed out weapons-grade meds to those other guys. I only need something for a cold.’

‘Not after 4 o’clock.’

‘But I work for the education department and don’t get back until half four.’

The nurse shrugs. The irony is that if I wanted spice, heroin, coke, weed, speed, skunk or crack I could source it in seconds, but I’m not allowed paracetamol as I’ve volunteered to work.

The flip side is people suffering serious health problems are using illegal drugs to self-medicate.

December 9

My son Kit, his mother Lottie and my parents are coming to see me. I arrive at the visits hall to find my mum looking flustered. The scanner didn’t recognise her fingerprints when she arrived, and she was so stressed that she forgot her own date of birth when they asked her. An officer took advantage of this and claimed she wasn’t really my mother.

Quite why a 72-year-old woman would enter this place for any reason other than visiting her son is beyond me. This is not unusual behaviour from the screws, who often treat relatives as if they’re criminals as well – as indeed sometimes they are.

December 10

Liz Truss is visiting tomorrow and Governor Bickers wants to show her the Purple Army, of which I’m now a member, in action.

We must report at 2pm wearing our purple shirts and put on a good show. ‘Just make it look like you’re doing something useful,’ says the officer in charge of the briefing.

December 11

It’s the day of Ms Truss’s visit and twice the normal number of screws are on duty – the male officers have brutally shaven faces and slicked back hair and the women are wearing too much make-up and perfume.

A gym session is called for the first time in weeks – I suspect this is to prevent Ms Truss visiting an empty gym. The whole place is alive with prisoners feverishly scrubbing floors. It’s like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice scene in the Disney movie Fantasia, but with drug-dealers instead of dancing broomsticks.

I change into my Purple Army uniform and muster with the rest of the troops. We stand around pretending to advise prisoners, clutching clipboards for dramatic effect.

Suddenly the organiser of the Purple Army appears looking distraught. It turns out Ms Truss won’t be visiting our wing. ‘She isn’t even meeting any prisoners,’ he says.

But then, out of nowhere, Governor Bickers and Ms Truss suddenly appear and I jump back in surprise. The visitors seem equally shocked at encountering real prisoners and Bickers hustles them away.

I can hear snippets of the governor’s spiel: ‘Reform… turning a corner… Purple Army.’ Ms Truss appears to be counting the seconds until her ministerial car whisks her back to Westminster.

December 12

A Bit Of A Stretch, by Chris Atkins, is published by Atlantic next month at £16.99

I’m asked to see a lad called Dean, who is on a programme for prisoners at high risk of suicide. He has tried to hang himself several times, and has been placed in an observation cell with a thick sheet of Perspex in place of a door and he’s watched constantly by a health worker sitting outside. The cell is situated on the main thoroughfare through our wing, so hundreds of prisoners pass by every day and have a good gawp inside.

To me, this shaming of the mentally ill is reminiscent of putting lunatics in stocks in the village square. Dean is only 19. I offer him some magazines but he mournfully admits he can’t read.

He hasn’t eaten anything for two days except for razor blades, and won’t touch prison food as he’s convinced he’s being poisoned. I offer to bring him something to eat and promise not to poison him.

I return with Dean’s supper and he gives me a weak fist-bump. It strikes me that this lad is closer to my four-year-old son’s age than mine. I swear to myself that when I get out I’ll try to stop the system brutalising youngsters in this way.

December 20

The prison is full of tramps and rough sleepers who have been admitted over the festive period. They’ve usually committed a minor offence just to get a roof over their heads and some food.

December 21

An empty brown envelope is shoved under my door. Attached is a note that informs me that its contents have been confiscated – it turns out that these were Christmas decorations posted by a friend. I add ‘paper stars’ and ‘snowflakes’ to the burgeoning list of unauthorised items, which does not seem to extend to illegal drugs.

December 25

We spend Christmas Day sitting in our beds watching TV. The Shawshank Redemption [about two prisoners who find solace and eventual redemption through acts of common decency] is often on, and my new cellmate Gary compares the on-screen facilities to those in Wandsworth. ‘They’ve got four washing machines in their laundry,’ says Gary. ‘Lucky bastards.’

December 31

We watch Match Of The Day. Our wing is full of Chelsea fans and whenever their team scores, there is an explosion of door-kicking. The night-screw furiously tries to stop the noise, which just provokes more thumping.

The clock chimes midnight and New Year. I have spent exactly six months in prison. I’m amazed at how quickly time has flown. I no longer crave alcohol or nicotine, I actually like the taste of instant coffee and I don’t find the hard bed uncomfortable.

January 6, 2017

I learn details about my forthcoming Proceeds of Crime hearing [where convicted defendants are ordered to repay the amount of their benefit from crime]. An accountant has been hired to calculate my financial gain. They accept I wasn’t paid personally, but I am on the block for money retained by the production company I used to fund a film I was making. My personal liability is calculated at £100,000.

February 1

The verdicts are in on the big HBOS fraud trial that has been going on in London. Six bankers have been found guilty of a £230 million fraud. A few hours later they stumble into Wandsworth, one with a massive Louis Vuitton trunk which apparently needed two screws just to pick it up.

February 13

I pop in at one of the victim awareness schemes, where prisoners convicted of violence or drug crimes have to consider the impact of their actions. Chaz, a career criminal I vaguely know, is speaking. ‘I used to be a right scumbag, God’s truth,’ he says. ‘I didn’t give two f***s about anyone. But thanks to the victim awareness course, I now understand the full impact of my offending. Not just on my victims, but on wider society and my own family. I can honestly say that I’m never going to commit crime again.’

He sits down to enthusiastic applause. I tell Chaz I’m impressed with his honesty. He gives me a wink and whispers: ‘Load of old c**p, innit? Got to play the game.’

I later ask if he’s learned anything from the course. ‘Loads,’ he replies. ‘I picked up all the lingo they like to hear – ‘offending pathways’, ‘mitigating risk’, all that stuff. You trot out the buzzwords and you’re off to open prison in no time.’ Chaz is already planning his next crime.

February 23

Liz Truss is on TV talking about her plans for prisons, insisting she’s in the job for the long haul. ‘This will take time,’ she says. ‘It’s not something you can sort out in weeks or months.’ Three months later she is replaced.

February 24

At another confiscation hearing, I’m told that I must also pay prosecution costs and my bill is now £200,000. I will have to sell my house to pay it. The good news is that I’m approaching the time when I can leave Wandsworth and move to a low-security jail.

March 14

Someone has lost the key to the mailbox for outgoing post, and it hasn’t been emptied in weeks. I’m tempted to tell the officer in charge that we’re surrounded by hundreds of experienced criminals who would have the lock picked in no time.

March 20

A screw tells me that I’m due for a medical check that all inmates are supposed to receive on their second day in prison. In truth, this is my 264th day inside.

Afterwards, the officer says: ‘You’ve had your second-day screening now. I can tick you off my list.’

Wandsworth’s management is notorious for fixing the stats to make it look as if things are running better than they are. Often prisoners are given vital services just before they leave so the authorities can claim the boxes have been ticked.

March 21

Governor Bickers is leaving. I’m shocked. He has been the biggest cheerleader of the Government’s reform policy.

Days later it is reported in the press that his departure is due to the failure of the Purple Army scheme. Wandsworth will shortly lose its status as a ‘reform prison’ and revert to being a normal jail. No new reform prisons are announced and the whole scheme dies a death.

March 27

I’m handed a piece of A4 paper stating: ‘Prison Transfer Notification: Atkins – HMP Ford.’ It’s the official notification of my move to the open jail in West Sussex. I feel I should celebrate, so I attempt a cartwheel and nearly sprain my ankle.

March 28

I soak up Wandsworth’s towering Victorian walls for the last time. Weirdly, I’m sad to be leaving.

I’m well aware that my prison experience has been very different from the norm. I’ve had support from family and friends, and it helped that I was educated, white, middle-class, relatively affluent and didn’t have a mental illness.

This is not the case for the huge majority of prisoners, for whom incarceration does irreparable damage. You may well think that it’s deserved, as they’ve broken the law, but this does nothing to tackle the big issue of reoffending.

There is no getting around it. Our prison system as a whole is failing on an epic scale – failing to provide a safe environment for inmates and officers, and failing us, the public, by releasing offenders who go on to commit more crimes.

Most members of the public think that the terrible state of our prisons doesn’t affect them. But nothing could be further from the truth.

It’s no accident that the collapse of the prison system has coincided with an explosion in violent crime, which has doubled in the past three years.

Only when brave, radical and modernising changes are made will our beleaguered, brutal and outdated prison service finally be able to encourage offenders to turn their backs on crime – and that can only be good for all of us.

© 2020 Chris Atkins

  • A Bit Of A Stretch, by Chris Atkins, is published by Atlantic next month at £16.99. Offer price £13.59 (20 per cent discount) until February 18. To pre-order, call 01603 648 155, or go to mailshop. Free delivery on all orders – there is no minimum spend.

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