Nine months after entering Wandsworth, Atkins moved on, to serve the rest of his sentence in a couple of open prisons; the journal stops at that point. He feels little nostalgia for his time in jail, but thinks it has made him less judgmental and that we might all benefit from a spell inside. His epilogue lists the changes he’d introduce were he ever appointed justice secretary. They are humane, straightforward and make good sense. What are the chances of them being adopted by the current incumbent, Robert Buckland? As someone who once invested in a film partnership that HMRC investigated as a tax avoidance scheme, he and Atkins have some common ground. Let’s hope against hope they get together and that some of the reforms proposed here are implemented before conditions in our prisons get even worse.
Calamity: The Many Lives of Calamity Jane
"as Karen Jones sets out dismayingly early in her book, the only things that the real-life ‘Calamity Jane’ can with confidence be said to have in common with her legend is that she wore trousers, swore like a navvy and was pissed all the time..."
— The Spectator
Given he was sentenced in 2016, the book’s serious use is in its topicality. He explains the impact of “spice” (this synthetic version of cannabis “is the reason why 50 per cent of prisoners look like extras on a zombie film, with saucer white eyes, flaky skin and a twitchy step”), the system for getting your privileges “enhanced”, the hopeless vapouring of Liz Truss, the justice secretary at the time, on the news, and the disaster of “Grayling’s Folly”, which cut prison officers by a third.
Atkins, an atheist, happily goes to church while others declare themselves multi-faith to attend every worship service going: prisoners will do anything for the ‘unlock’. The author paints a colourful picture of this microcosm of society where white collar prisoners successfully play the system to get access to education and so more time out of their cells, while the disproportionate number of young black inmates remain locked up, addicted to ‘spice’, self-harming and often suicidal. The book teems with larger-than-life characters but beyond the pure grisly ‘entertainment’ lies a valuable report from the front line of the horrors of our prison system.
One must also issue a caveat about some of the diary entries containing ostensibly verbatim conversations: were they recorded at the time – and, if so, how openly – or recollected in tranquillity? As lawyers used to ask policemen giving evidence in court, ‘Were your notes made up at the time, officer?’What Atkins found inside the grim, crumbling south London prison will perhaps not come as much surprise to readers who take an interest in such things: inadequate, run-down, malfunctioning facilities; a high percentage of psychotic, drug-addled prisoners; and complacent, obtuse and negligent staff working under the supposed supervision of ministers veering between indifference and populist posturing.
A test of a prison memoir is whether its author is honest enough to have left in the parts that would make their mother wince. Atkins has. He is grateful for a cellmate’s sonorous snoring because it allows him to indulge his onanistic impulses while his neighbour is definitely asleep. He does not shy away from the scatological, either. Another cellmate, Dan, starts trying to scare him by engaging in “bodily functions as loudly and frequently as possible”. The prison later runs out of loo paper.