In Britain, Even Jails Have a Class System

How a filmmaker, convicted of fraud, discovered the “White Collar Club.”

Prisoners hang out on A wing at Wandsworth prison.
Filmmaker Chris Atkins was held in London's HM Prison Wandsworth for more than a year. (In Pictures / Corbis / Getty)

In June 2016, the filmmaker Chris Atkins was convicted of fraud after he submitted false invoices for his documentary about the British media, allowing its investors to dodge taxes. He was sentenced to five years in prison and sent to Wandsworth, in South London, one of the largest prisons in Western Europe.

Built in 1851, it holds about 1,600 men and is classed as Category B, one grade below the high-security prisons for violent offenders and terrorists. Thanks to his talent for sweet-talking the guards, Atkins soon got transferred to one of its less violent and rundown wings, Trinity, a Category C unit focused on training and resettlement. Eventually, he was moved from Wandsworth to a Category D—or “open”—prison with minimal security to serve the rest of his sentence. He was released in December 2018.

While in Wandsworth, Atkins—deprived of his liberty; regular access to his toddler son, Kit; and a smartphone—began to keep a diary. Because journalists are allowed only limited access to jails, few Britons have any idea what conditions are really like inside them. Atkins consoled himself that although he was locked up, he also had unfettered access to “the story of his life.”

With his filmmaker’s eye, he recorded both small details and outsize characters. He discovered a hierarchy within the inmate population—a hidden class system. Some wings were full of white, educated criminals convicted of offenses such as fraud and computer hacking. Others were occupied by men with mental-health problems, low levels of education, poor English, and little family support. The best cells were those on the ground floor, the “Ones,” which were usually occupied by long-term inmates or those with trusted jobs such as working in the canteen. The cells got worse the higher you went. “Moving from the Fours to the Twos was a big improvement, like getting bumped to economy plus,”  Atkins writes in the memoir that came out of his diary, A Bit of a Stretch.

In Britain, it is now a tabloid-newspaper cliché that jails are like “holiday camps,” but the reality is much bleaker. In the past decade, prison budgets have been cut, guard numbers have fallen, and a cannabis-like drug called “spice,” which can make users either violent or “zombified,” has become ubiquitous. A December 2017 parliamentary report said up to 90 percent of prisoners have mental-health problems, and 12 percent turn to self-harm or attempt suicide multiple times. Atkins joined a group called the “listeners,” which provided peer counseling for men in distress.

A Bit of a Stretch shows a system in chaos, as guards struggle to deal with mentally ill, poorly educated men housed in decaying old buildings. It is also, in places, very funny. I spoke with Atkins last week to coincide with the book’s publication. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Helen Lewis: How did you end up in Wandsworth?

Chris Atkins: There was a film called Starsuckers, which I started making 12 or 13 years ago. It was a film criticizing the media, and because of that it was very, very difficult to get funding. So I engaged with tax-investment funds that were quite fashionable at the time. This particular tax fund crossed the line from morally reprehensible tax avoidance into outright tax evasion. No excuses: We shouldn't have done it, and we had to pay the price.

Lewis: In your memoir you write that Wandsworth is “a strange mirror of wider society” where “the more educated and affluent prisoners quietly carved out the best jobs and places to live.”

Atkins: You basically start at the bottom and work your way up in prison. In a very sharp-elbowed way, I wormed my way up to the best cells and the best wing. Anytime you make a step in that direction, your life gets a little bit better, your neighbours a bit less unhinged, you get a little bit more unlock time, the food gets slightly better. It is a weird mirror of middle-class people finding their way into the houses by the best schools. The white, intelligent, educated, not-mentally-ill people generally end up in the best spots.

Lewis: You eventually got transferred to the plushest wing, and the best cell in that wing, surrounded by other white-collar criminals.

Atkins: It was comfortable and uncomfortable: comfortable because I was around people who were more like me. I mean, I don't consort with City boys [bankers], but in Wandsworth they became my type. They were closer to me than the mentally ill drug addicts or the Romanian gangsters.

But it was uncomfortable because they'd all done things that were wrong as well. Arguably, things that harm society more than the mentally ill drug addicts. Some of them were responsible for dozens of people losing their life savings.

Lewis: The short-staffing of prison guards meant that the “White Collar Club” was doing lots of tasks—handing out paperwork, cleaning, counseling, running the library—that kept the place running.

Atkins: Completely. And the White Collar Club would hand jobs out to each other. They wanted me there [in the best wing of the prison]. You were attractive to them simply because you weren't a nutter—because everyone had had a nutty cell mate or nutty neighbors.

When the jobs would come in, Lance and Scott [two fellow prisoners at the top of the pecking order], they would be like a king handing out patronage. Later, I was being offered jobs and I didn’t want them, so I would hand them out like candy to people below me. At one point, I was doing seven jobs.

Lewis: The White Collar Club reacted badly when a violent, loud prisoner named Wayne moved into their section. What happened?

Atkins: It was like, ‘This neighborhood has taken a turn for the worse. Who's at number 28? He has music on loud.’ It was uncomfortable because [Wayne] probably had a mental illness and had a terrible hand in life. We had all the advantages in life and squandered them.

In prison, though, you stop worrying about the outside world; because it's so closed off, I could have been on the moon. Instead you become fascinated and obsessed with all the stuff that's going on in your immediate environment … We were all interested in, you know, who's going to move into H-12.

Lewis: Because you can control so little, you become obsessed with what you can control.

Atkins: And you want what your neighbors want. Once, we made a bin [trash can]. It took hours. And then we noticed that the lads in the cell next door, their bin had a lid. So we thought: We've got to get a lid. It is like, ‘Oh, they’ve got a swimming pool next door; we need a pool.’

Lewis: You worked doing education tests on incoming prisoners. How many were illiterate?

Atkins: I'd say 50 percent were functionally illiterate. They could barely read or write.

Lewis: After a few months, you and your ex-partner were “running on completely different clocks” when she came to visit. Tell me about becoming “institutionalized.”

Atkins: It's not about becoming more dysfunctional or falling apart; it's about adapting to your environment. When the white-collar types would arrive, they’d ask to move cells. Then again, half an hour later. Then again. They were used to everything happening now—the immediacy of modern society, where if you want something, you go on Amazon Prime and it’s delivered this evening. Prison moves at a glacial pace. As you adapt to the environment, you start moving at a glacial pace.

Lewis: You said you were one of the few people in Wandsworth who didn’t have an iPhone. What was that like?

Atkins: Someone in the cell above me kept dragging a chair, so there was this vibration. It gave me Pavlovian twitches for my phone.I kept reaching for my pocket to get the phone—and prison clothes don’t have pockets. You think, How can I survive without it? for three weeks, then you stop.

Lewis: You studied for a psychology degree with all that extra time.

Atkins: I got so much more done than I do now, with Twitter and texting your mates. I still don't recommend it. People kept saying, ‘It sounds like a great writer’s retreat.’

Lewis: You did find humor in the situation: You ordered a rock hammer and a poster of Rita Hayworth in the name of a fellow prisoner.

Atkins: Prisons are very, very, very funny places, naturally. At Wandsworth, I couldn’t wait sometimes to get back to my cell and tell my cell mate what had happened on E Wing. Some of it was nervous laughter, a reaction to the trauma.

Lewis: You worked as a “listener”—something close to a Samaritan, providing support for traumatized people. What issues did they have?

Atkins: Some people came into my cell saying they wanted to kill themselves. A lot of the time it was just complaining—but complaining helps, because people get stuff off their chests. Shit cell mates were the top one. Until you worked out the system, you couldn’t choose your cell mate, so you’d get lumped with someone you couldn’t stand for 23 hours a day. Women problems: she won’t visit; she’s leaving. New charges landing on them when they were inside. There were people with severe mental illness, that was the most shocking thing.

Lewis: One of the shocks of the book is how nondigital the prison system is. It’s all literal paperwork.

Atkins: I’m writing a TV drama about this. I smuggled out a load of paperwork because I thought: People will never believe this. If you want anything at all—if you want to get extra visits, if you want a kosher meal, if you want to go to the Christian service, if you ordered candy from the canteen and it didn’t arrive, if you need phone credit—half of it goes in the bin; it is never, ever responded to.

Lewis: You write that you were the only person in Wandsworth getting the left-wing Guardian newspaper delivered. I was surprised that the most popular magazine in prison was GQ.

Atkins: People of the prisoner class have really, really bought into the capitalist dream. But they were too unlucky, ill-educated, unfortunate, or born in the wrong place to have all the things that society has told them they should have. They were taught from a very early age: You can have it all, not just the wealth but the stuff. Trainers [sneakers] are a big deal, watches are a big deal, cars are a big deal.

Lewis: Tell me about “spice,” which seems to have become the British prisoner’s drug of choice.

Atkins: It was so ubiquitous. You could tell straightaway if someone was on it, they’d be zombified, with glazed eyes. They’d just be lying on their bed in a vegetative state.

I think [spice users] are used to smoking strong cannabis. And you can't really get away with that, because of the smell. But spice doesn’t smell. The sniffer dogs can’t get it.

It’s the law of unintended consequences. An older screw [prisoner officer] said, it used to be that inmates would smoke weed. But then [jails] brought in drug testing, and marijuana stays in the system for a month. So they stopped doing that, and started to do spice, which makes people vegetative and violent.

Lewis: How does Wandsworth compare to fictional versions of prisons? You write that the water pressure was a lot better in Shawshank Redemption.

Atkins: Nothing captures the chaos and the dysfunctionality and the Catch-22-ness. Nothing works the way it should. There is a whole shadow economy. I never ate tuna, but you had a dozen tins of tuna by the door to exchange for whatever you needed.

The entire way the prison was supposed to work had broken down, and everyone knew it.

Lewis: If I gave you a magic wand, what’s the first thing you would fix?

Atkins: Mental health. Take people with mental illness out of the system or give them proper mental-health care while they are there. It is the only humane thing to do.

Lewis: What else would you change?

Atkins: They should embrace technology, which would save money and be more efficient. And although I would say this, because I was one of them, keeping white-collar criminals in Category C prisons [closed ones, like Wandsworth] is ridiculous. Send them to open prison, which is far cheaper, and they can teach other prisoners to read and write.

It’s still shit in open prison. You’re still not with your family. It’s the separation that kills you; the conditions, you get used to, wherever you are.