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25 November 2023updated 15 May 2024 2:15pm

Chris Atkins: “If we solved reoffending, we’d prevent 80 per cent of all crimes”

The author, film-maker and former Wandsworth inmate on why we should all care about our broken prison system.

By Rachel Cunliffe

The day before Chris Atkins’s new book was published, 6 September, the terror suspect and former soldier Daniel Khalife allegedly escaped from Wandsworth prison. “I have to say allegedly, because he’s pleaded not guilty, which will be a riveting trial,” Atkins tells me.

This was fitting timing since the book, Time After Time, is devoted to failures in the UK’s prison system – and Wandsworth features heavily. Which is understandable, given that’s where Atkins spent nearly a year, although he assures me he never considered trying to escape by clinging to the underside of a lorry (as Khalife is alleged to have done). 

Atkins, 47, a Bafta-nominated documentary film-maker, got an uncomfortably close-up view of the prison system when he was convicted of tax fraud in 2016. (The case was part of a complex investigation by HMRC into tax loopholes in the British film industry, whereby investors claimed tax rebates against losses. Atkins was accused of inflating costs so investors could exploit the subsidy, although he himself did not financially gain from the scheme.)

He spent two and a half years inside, and while he found the experience devastating (“I teetered on the brink of madness a few times”), since being released he has put it to good use. In 2020 he published A Bit of a Stretch, based on the diaries he kept while at Wandsworth. Time After Time looks at the question of incarceration from the other side: what happens to offenders once they are released, and why do so many of them end up going back to prison?

I wanted to speak to Atkins after news broke in October that judges in England and Wales had been told to delay the sentencing of people convicted of serious crimes – including burglary and sexual assault – because prisons were now effectively full. The prison population has doubled in 40 years to 88,225, overcrowding has increased to dangerous levels and staff numbers have failed to keep up. This has devastating implications for the safety of prisoners and officers alike (the 2016 riot at HMP Birmingham was in part the result of overcrowding), for prisoner mental health, and for rehabilitation. 

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For those affected, the dismal state of our prisons (and our criminal justice system in general) is a source of national shame. But most people don’t think too much about what prisoners experience inside.

“Every time I give a talk or go on radio, I always get the same question, which is why should we spend money on these areas? They’re bad people, they don’t deserve resources,” Atkins tells me. “And I say you’re not really spending money on them, you’re spending money on the next set of victims that they’re going to create unless we can do something to tackle this.”

The stats make for depressing reading: 45 per cent of adult ex-prisoners are reconvicted within a year of release, rising to 61 per cent among those serving short sentences. Reoffending costs the taxpayer £18bn a year. “If we solved reoffending, we’d prevent 80 per cent of all crimes,” Atkins writes in the introduction to Time After Time. Through in-depth interviews, some of them with people he befriended inside, Atkins charts a litany of institutional failures within the underfunded and often overly bureaucratic prison and probation services that make it almost inevitable that released prisoners will end up back inside.

There’s Eric, who was unable to access his mental health medication when released, so ended up deliberately breaking the terms of his parole because he knew he’d receive the drugs if he went back to prison. Lee, who’s addicted to cannabis (which he uses to self-medicate his ADHD) and, in the absence of any rehabilitation service, ends up dealing to pay for his addiction shortly after getting out. Simon, who is wanted by police for breaking the terms of his parole licence by sleeping rough, because he has nowhere safe to live. (He had previously managed to escape from prison by pretending to be his twin brother: an amusing anecdote, until you realise how dysfunctional the system must have been to allow that to happen – they weren’t identical.)

Then there are the people who end up recalled to prison after being released on licence for the most spurious transgressions, taking up prison places that mean there is no space for those newly convicted. Atkins shows me a letter he received from Ed, a friend who’d appeared on his podcast about prison life. Ed had been recalled for an alleged incident which police now acknowledge there was no evidence for. “Now he’s inside ‘bed-blocking’, while a rapist who’s been convicted is not, because Ed has taken his bed. It’s one in one out.” 

[See also: Pia Sinha: How criminal gangs are taking over prisons]

Sipping a cappuccino in a cosy coffee shop near his north London home, with his adoring cockapoo Coco resting her head on his lap as we chat, it’s hard to picture Atkins in a cell at Wandsworth, wearing the regulation prison-issue tracksuit that he describes as “almost like Victorian smocks, it’s like the sackcloth and ashes thing, it’s like wearing the mark of shame”. Prior to 2016 his career focused on high-profile political issues: the crackdown on civil liberties under Tony Blair (as documented in the film Taking Liberties), the toxicity of tabloid celebrity culture (Starsuckers), the rise of Ukip. He admits he’d never taken much of an interest in criminal justice before, because “it seemed quite a dull subject to me… We create a blind spot to it. I had a blind spot to it.”

His time in Wandsworth and in the other prisons he experienced gave him something unexpected: membership of a club no one wants to join but which has proved invaluable in getting those caught up in the criminal justice system to trust him.  

“It’s first thing I say: ‘I got five for tax fraud, Wandsworth.’ They’re like, ‘Ooh Wandsworth is a f***ing shithole.’ ‘Yeah tell me about it.’ ‘I’ve got a mate there.’ ‘Oh who’s your mate there?’ That’s how the dialogue starts.” The fact that Wandsworth is infamous for being terrible even among the prison population meant it was “kind of a badge of honour that I did almost a year there”.

It also enabled him to see first-hand the devastating impact of Chris Grayling’s reforms, widely considered disastrous even by subsequent Conservative justice secretaries, and the deep cuts to the justice system. Justice spending between 2010 and 2020 was cut by 25 per cent, but, as Atkins puts it, you can’t just ask criminals to commit 25 per cent less crime. Other effects of austerity – rising poverty, a reduced social safety net, cuts to social services and community programmes such as drug rehab and housing facilities – have put more pressure on the prison system, as has the kneejerk impulse from Conservative politicians to call for “tougher sentences” whenever there’s a high-profile case in the news.

When I ask Atkins what he made of the government’s recent “zero tolerance” plan for shoplifters, he simply laughs. Where would we put them? He talks of a rhetorical “arms race” going on between the two main parties, with Labour just as keen to avoid seeming “soft” on crime, and neither side willing to look at the actual data on what works. “It’s just playground, it’s adolescent, it’s pathetic. It’s ‘my dad’s harder than your dad’… Can you imagine if with healthcare it was reduced to ‘my cure’s better than your cure. Your cure’s weak, my cure’s tough’?”

Atkins warns that, while politicians might not care much about the plight of prisoners, they should care about public safety. The Daniel Khalife episode appears to show what happens when prison staff levels are stretched to breaking point. The probation service, which is meant to keep tabs on ex-offenders, is similarly overwhelmed by the sheer number of people caseworkers are responsible for. That means truly dangerous individuals, such as the man who sexually assaulted and murdered Zara Aleena in Ilford, east London, while released on licence, do not get the supervision they require.

Instead of sending more people to prison (it costs around £35,000 to imprison someone for a year, equivalent to fees at some of the most prestigious boarding schools), it would be far more cost-effective for the taxpayer to invest in reducing reoffending. Reforming the recall system so people such as Ed don’t get returned on trivial grounds, more and better funded probation hostels, mental health and drug addiction services, education and training within prisons, and support for finding work on release would all make a huge difference. But the more the justice budget is stretched, the more these services get cut. It’s a vicious cycle, with overcrowding reducing resources, which then increases the risk of further overcrowding due to reoffending. Atkins refers to the “conveyor belt” he saw at Wandsworth, where people he’d waved goodbye to would end up back within a matter of weeks.

Atkins was one of the lucky ones. He had a strong support network and a life to return to once he was out. His first book was a Sunday Times bestseller and his criminal conviction doesn’t seem to have done his career any harm (his new music documentary about James Blunt is out next week). When he leaves the coffee shop, he’s going home for an afternoon of baking with his son. But prison has still changed him. He cares deeply about the people he met inside, and is furious at the system which seems designed to ensure they can never rebuild their lives. Even if they are not all victims or loveable rogues, even if they have committed genuinely terrible crimes (and some in Time After Time very much have), he could not be clearer that society is failing to protect itself, let alone them. Although, while his compassion and empathy for those who find themselves at the bottom of the heap is self-evident, when I ask how the prison population has responded to his writing, Atkins is under no illusions. “People would message me to say, ‘I’ve just nicked your book.’ Well, you’re thieves, why should I be surprised?”

[See also: Marx and Keynes can free Labour from its budget bind]

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