There’s lockdown, and then there’s lockdown. Chris Atkins, a successful English filmmaker, got involved in a tax-dodging scheme to finance a documentary. He was sentenced to five years in prison, and was sent to Wandsworth — one of the largest, oldest and unruliest prisons in Britain. If he stood on the dismal toilet in his cell, he could sometimes see the London skyline.
Atkins isn’t here to ask forgiveness. He’s guilty, he admits, even if he was a junior partner in a stratagem he dimly understood. Nor does he ask for special sympathy. He’s aware his prison experience was, by comparison with others, not especially dire. He had the support of family and friends. “It also helped,” he writes, “that I was educated, white, middle class, relatively affluent and I didn’t have a mental illness.”
There has been a good deal of excellent writing, in the last few years, about jail and African-American men. I’m thinking especially of “Solitary,” Albert Woodfox’s amazing memoir about four decades spent in solitary confinement at Angola, and “Felon,” Reginald Dwayne Betts’s book of poems.
Atkins’s book, “A Bit of a Stretch: The Diaries of a Prisoner,” is a different, less harrowing sort of volume. But it’s a good one. He’s a sensitive observer, sober but alert to wincing varieties of humor. He’s not one of those people who, in T.S. Eliot’s phrase, “had the experience but missed the meaning.”
Atkins began serving time in July 2016. The Brexit vote happened around that time, and then, blammo, Donald J. Trump became president of the United States. Atkins feels the world has gone mad in his absence, the way sports fans sense their team performs worse when they aren’t personally scrutinizing every play.
The first thing Atkins notices, upon arriving at Wandsworth, is that the inmates, unlike those in movies, are not tanned and ripped. They are emaciated, addicted to synthetic marijuana known as spice and very often mentally ill. Showers are infrequent; the smell is unholy.
He observes how men, in the absence of women, tend to walk around with their hands down the fronts of their pants. He discovers that prison is a bad place to break your eyeglasses. It’s a bad place to be unwell in any way.
Atkins attended a boarding school in Worcestershire and studied physics at Oxford before becoming a filmmaker. His lively documentaries could be pushy, in a Michael Moore sort of way. One, “Taking Liberties,” was about the erosion of civil liberties in the United Kingdom. He was the sort of person who held people accountable, he says, so he can hardly complain that he’s been held accountable, too.
The author slowly builds a case against the gross ineptitude of Wandsworth and of England’s prison system. “If Wandsworth was a hospital, patients would be discharged with far more diseases than when they arrived,” he writes. “If it was a school, pupils would graduate knowing less than when they enrolled.”
He blames most of the problems on chronic understaffing, which leads to prisoners being locked down for long periods of time. It leads to the cancellation of almost everything that matters to inmates — visitations, time spent outdoors, educational outlets, showers. Lockdowns lead to uncertainty and unrest.
Atkins gets more time outside his cell by taking on various jobs, and by becoming what the prison calls a listener, someone who visits other prisoners in distress and tries to talk them down from panic attacks, from self-harming and from hopelessness.
He witnesses a great deal of violence. He comes to understand how the body’s orifices can be used to smuggle many things into a prison. He learns that a can of tuna is the basic unit of prison currency. Why do prisoners detest pedophiles with such avidity? Everyone, Atkins writes, wants to feel there is someone lower down the social ladder.
It matters, in prison, who your roommate is. It matters which wing of the prison you are in. Some are terrifying. Atkins slowly works his way up to better cells and sane roommates. He becomes close to several of them, and he’s shocked to discover, later, the true impact of their crimes. Prison underlines a truism: Good people can do bad things.
One of Atkins’s early roommates covers the cell’s walls with pornography. The author has to peel off a few topless photos to make room for photos of Kit, his son, who is 3 when his father enters prison. Atkins is separated from Kit’s mother, but they remain close.
You might suspect porn magazines would be the most popular ones in prison. In actuality, the most desired publication is GQ.
“Prisoners drooled endlessly over Orlando Bloom’s watch or David Beckham’s shoes, believing they too could possess these luxuries if they sold enough drugs,” Atkins writes. “Prison is what lies behind the mirror of consumer capitalism, the unseen consequence of telling everyone that they can have whatever they want.”
Atkins’s best writing is about what imprisonment does to one’s body and mind: the adrenaline surge of arrival in prison, the taste of shock in one’s mouth. He writes about the exhaustion prisoners feel, a vastly more extreme version of what many have felt during quarantine.
He misses his son desperately, and fears Kit will forget him. He describes the primal fear when the water cuts out, for example, and he and his roommate wonder if they will have to boil toilet water to survive. He is far from solipsistic. He describes the prison as a large organism, with everyone sharing many of the same emotions at once.
“A Bit of a Stretch” explores how public perceptions of prison life are wildly different from the reality, in the same way that Paul Fussell’s “The Great War and Modern Memory” is about how romantic public ideas of war differed from the carnage on the ground.
Atkins becomes deeply cynical. He realizes that nothing, absolutely nothing, politicians or criminal justice leaders say in public is anything close to what inmates experience.
He spends nine months at Wandsworth before he is transferred to a minimum-security prison to serve the remainder of this time. His diary ends with his transfer. He writes that prison made him a better person; he’s less of a judgmental soul. “A Bit of a Stretch” may not be a major book, but it’s soulful indeed.