A writer & Longford scholar compare notes on how to make prisons places of reform

Author: | 28 Jul 2020

Going to prison wasn’t part of the plan. Neither for writer and filmmaker Chris Atkins nor for classics student and Longford scholar Nahshon.

Here they meet to discuss what they have learnt from their time inside

Chris Atkins is a BAFTA nominated film maker who was sent to prison for tax fraud in 2016. I have also been to prison and had my studies interrupted. I was keen to meet Chris about his recent book A Bit of a Stretch: The Diaries of a Prisoner where he talks about his experiences living at Her Majesty’s Pleasure.  Due to the COVID-19 outbreak the interview took place on Zoom, something I was apprehensive about at first; it can be daunting enough building a rapport face-to-face, let alone in the virtual world. I shouldn’t have worried. A calm, probably brought on by our shared experiences, quickly set the tone.

Chris Atkins went into prison, as many others undoubtedly have, frightened, broken and despondent. Despite sharing those feelings with most newly sentenced prisoners, Chris Atkins was, for want of a better term, no ‘ordinary’ prisoner.

A public school, white, Oxford University educated film maker, Chris, like me, kept a diary to  process the flush of emotions that besieged him in the early stages of his sentence. A record he continued to keep in Wandsworth, his first prison.

 I, a young black student studying at a Russell Group University, also decided a diary would help me to make sense of my time behind bars. My diary was purely personal. I wrote about daily feelings and challenges. Chris, however, went further. With his background as a filmmaker he had a unique skill to bring good to an ostensibly glum state of affairs- the skill of storytelling.

It was not initially Chris’ intention to produce a dissection of the inadequacies of the UK prison system. However, early on in his sentence he began to understand just how broken the prison system was and how unconducive it is to rehabilitation.

The impact of relationships: inside and out

The focal point of the early part of our discussion was the relationships you form and maintain inside, and what effect this might have on rehabilitation.

In A Bit of a Stretch, I am struck by the times Chris received letters and his cellmate got none. I too experienced this. In fact, Chris and I both got lots of letters, which felt like symbols of true love from those we were separated from. A simple handwritten letter brings a loved one close. That said, it is quite normal for people in prison not to receive a letter in a week, even a month. A quick side note here, phone calls are extortionately priced, so some people experience long periods of silence from loved ones.

I recall one cellmate of mine expecting letters which never came. Chris and I both noted the sense of guilt we felt in these situations. At times, I would hide my letters for fear of inflicting jealousy on my fellow inmates. I need to be honest here though, staying in touch properly was by no means plain sailing for either of us. Visits were ridiculously hard to organise. For the first month or so of his sentence Chris couldn’t see his young son, despite providing all the required information.

It is often argued, and rightly so, that maintaining the relationships between friends and family on the outside is the key to rehabilitation. It is not in the government’s power to force prisoners’ families to write them letters. However, it seems perfectly reasonable to ask them not to place obstacles in the way of prisoners and their loved ones. I can tell you from what I saw, if people don’t have contact with their family and friends on the outside, there is a distinct risk they replace that need for contact with others on the inside who may not be a positive influence.  You see this with younger prisoners who can be vulnerable to older, more ‘seasoned’ prisoners.

As Chris discovered, the relationships you form in prison is a game changer. Take one cellmate, Martyn, who was one of the only reasons he was able to get through the first few months of his sentence, ‘the thin line between sanity and madness’ he called it. For those who stumble across to the latter side of the line there is scant support.

The art of listening in a ‘warehouse for the mentally ill’

Chris spent much of his sentence working as a Listener: these people were tasked with talking to seriously troubled prisoners who didn’t want to deal with officers. It often involved talking people out of suicide. Wandsworth prison, where Chris spent the first half of his sentence, was in his words: ‘a warehouse for the mentally ill’. Most of these troubled minds were ignored which could and has resulted in fatal consequences.

Take the tragic case of teenager Osvaldas Pagirys, for example. He was an 18-year-old who was arrested for stealing sweets. Despite being found with a noose on five separate occasions in prison he was largely ignored and killed himself.

Prisoners should not be babied but how can this be justice?

Time to be bold: rethinking education, work and beyond

For myself and writer Chris this is where education can offer a lifeline – not just in terms of personal happiness and safety but also as a means of staying on a generally positive track. Chris Atkins has a bold proposal,

If prisoners are literate, they are less likely to reoffend […] give them a month off their sentence if they pass GCSE English.’

An outlandish proposal perhaps but illustrates a potent point. It is no secret that offenders have had disproportionately vulnerable childhoods, often excluded from school. Many in prison are there because of a failure of the British education and social care systems. No crime is excusable, mine or anyone’s. However, it is to my mind not unreasonable to ask that people who were failed by the system are adequately supported by the system. Perhaps it would be excessively generous to give prisoners time off their sentence as an incentive to educate themselves, perhaps not.

There needs to be a serious rethink of how to encourage prisoners into work and away from crime.

Too often prisons are universities of crime. They don’t have to be and they shouldn’t be.

Chris and I are living proof of this. I have successfully resumed my studies; Chris has written a book and is raising public awareness of the failings of the criminal justice system. We have been able to do this with educational tools and supportive families at our disposal.

Hope drove my rehabilitation. Hope that one day I have a realistic chance of success; a stable job, a roof over my head, a family and the means to provide for them. For Chris and I there was always light at the end of the tunnel, just as there should be for every prisoner inside.