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.
The noise alone was enough to send a person round the bend, the “yelling, banging, screaming, grunting, begging, barking, threatening, ranting”. Cells, shared with people who snore, belch and worse, were smeared with excrement and splashed blood. The wet concrete floors were awash with plastic bags, razors and unspeakable detritus. There was a lack of privacy curtains, unbroken lavatory seats, toilet paper, kettles and taps. As access to showers was limited, there was a pervasive stench. Water was either freezing or boiling, or cut off completely for days. Underclothes were changed once a month, if that. “When I ask an officer about the kit change, he just laughs and walks away.”
The result, however, is a razor-sharp and darkly funny memoir that should be mandatory reading for justice ministers, ministry officials, Her Majesty’s inspectors, and anyone at all interested in the anarchy that is the UK prisons system. Behind bars, Atkins seems to have kept his sanity by turning an imaginary camera on himself.
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.