Prisons make hundreds of brutally unjust mistakes every day

A view of D wing from the exercise yard at Wandsworth Prison. HMP Wandsworth in South West London was built in 1851 and is one of the largest prisons in Western Europe. It has a capacity of 1456 prisoners. (Photo by In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images)

On the afternoon of 1st July 2016, shortly after being sentenced to five years in prison for using a tax fraud scheme to fund one of his films, BAFTA-nominated documentary maker Chris Atkins was taken to E4-36, a 12ft x 6ft cell that he was to co-habit at his new London home, HMP Wandsworth. He spent nine months at this “cesspit of misery and despair,” initially locked up for 23 hours of each day, and it was during this period that Chris kept a diary and extensive notes. This particular entry was written six months in. His cellmate, Gary, had served half of a four year sentence for smuggling cannabis and was due to be released on 21st January—or so he thought. Despite Chris’ best efforts, Gary didn’t leave on that date, but he was transferred to an open prison on 4th March. Chris followed him that same month, finally leaving prison on 28th December 2018 having served half his sentence.

The Diary Entry

12 January 

Gary’s due to go home next week, and he’s bouncing off the walls in anticipation. This afternoon a young probation officer asks him for a quiet word. Twenty minutes later, Gary reappears, pale and hyperventilating. It’s obvious that something is terribly wrong.

“They’ve just given me another six months!’ he gasps.

The probation officer told him that there had been a ‘bit of an error’ with his sentence calculation; his release date has now been pushed back to 31 July. The mix-up stems from the fact that he was originally sentenced in Ireland, where offenders serve three quarters of their total sentence.

We dig through all Gary’s paperwork. He previously submitted several general apps asking to see OMU [offender management unit] to clarify his release date. A month ago, Tracey sent back a clear written response: Your release date is confirmed as 21 January 2017.

We take this document to Tracey’s office, and she looks Gary up on NOMIS [prisoner database]. The screen now shows his release date as 31 July. Tracey hits peak flailing and offers him some additional visits, as though this compensates for six more months in prison.

Gary stumbles off to call his family. His mother hasn’t visited him in Wandsworth, as she’s been too upset to see him in these conditions. He breaks the news that she now won’t see him until July, and she’s completely devastated. The most upsetting call is to his girlfriend, Emma. She’s stood by him throughout, and is distraught that her life is being put on hold yet again. Tragically, everyone assumes that the delay is Gary’s fault.

Now it’s very easy for me to accept that Wandsworth has miscalculated someone’s sentence by half a year. I’ve observed OMU’s failings for some time, and such disasters are commonplace. But Gary’s family simply cannot accept that public officials could be this inept. His brother suggests that the increased sentence is a result of Gary misbehaving in prison. Like the boy who cried wolf, he is now being judged as the unreliable cokehead who was jailed two years ago.

Prisons make hundreds of brutally unjust mistakes every day. Fighting the system is rarely successful, and just grinds you down. It’s usually best to simply ‘ride the bang-up’—laugh at the problem and cross off the days. But increasing Gary’s sentence crosses a line, and we resolve to fight it tooth and nail.

Further Reading

Chris’ time at HMP Wandsworth is documented in A Bit of a Stretch: The Diaries of a Prisoner. A fascinating and important book.

Diary entry excerpted from A Bit of a Stretch: The Diaries of a Prisoner by Chris Atkins. Copyright © Chris Atkins 2020. Reproduced with permission of the Licensor through PLSclear. Many thanks to Chris Atkins.

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