Allow me to introduce myself. I used to be a reasonably successful documentary maker, directing films for the BBC and Channel 4. But in 2016 I was jailed for tax fraud, after getting involved in a highly dodgy tax scheme to fund my film Starsuckers.
I got a five year sentence, which means two and a half years behind bars, and spent my first nine months in HMP Wandsworth. It's one of four 'local' jails in London, which are all falling apart and not fit for purpose. When I stayed in Wandsworth it was the second most overcrowded prison in the country, and one of the most dysfunctional.
I met some fascinating people inside, who feature in my book A Bit of a Stretch. After a while my fellow inmates began to coalesce into distinct categories, as I met the same type of offenders again and again. (Often it was the same offender, who had come back inside on another sentence, such are the ludicrously high rates of reoffending.) So if you ever get banged up in a London prison, here is a handy guide to who you'll be bunked up with.
1. Mentally ill drug addicts
Unfortunately there are rather a lot of these in British jails. Far from being functioning centres of rehabilitation, our penal system is mostly just warehousing severely damaged individuals who have been completely abandoned by the care system. Their offending is mostly minor, although extremely persistent, and their criminality is often linked to their terrible mental health problems. I worked as an in-prison counsellor for the Samaritans, and dealt with these guys all the time, and they mostly deserve medical treatment rather than barbaric punishment.
2. The homeless
A subcategory of (1), but with the distinct feature that these poor souls deliberately commit crimes simply to get a roof over their heads. London prisons are filthy and degrading hell holes, but they are marginally preferable to freezing to death on the streets. Over Christmas, Wandsworth was swamped with unfortunate homeless people who had kicked in shop windows with the express intention of getting locked up somewhere warm. This self-incarceration is so commonplace that the prison actually cleared out hundreds of 'normal' inmates in December, to make room for the festive rush.
3. Drug dealers
Approximately 50% of London jailbirds are imprisoned because of the drug trade. This fact alone should convince anyone (except sadly the Tory cabinet) that the war on drugs has been completely lost. This is deeply ironic as half the Tory cabinet have admitted taking illegal drugs themselves, including the current prime minister.
4. Foreign nationals
London jails like Wandsworth act as detention centres for incarcerated tourists. They are mostly drug dealers as well, usually from Ukraine, Albania and Bulgaria. I generally found them pleasant and good natured, apart from a deranged Romanian pick pocket who plastered pornography all over the cell I briefly shared with him.
5. Young adults
A worrying number of 18 and 19 year olds now get sent to local jails. Wandsworth was so dangerous that it was no place to safely house adults, let alone teenagers. Previously 18-21 year olds were imprisoned in young offenders institutions with specially trained staff. However endless cutbacks mean that 18 and 19 year olds are now sent to adult prisons. Often these kids were inside on pathetically trivial offences. One boy was sent to Wandsworth for stealing sweets, and was so traumatised that he hanged himself.
6. Boiler room bandits
Typically these were coked up Essex boys, who had watched The Wolf of Wall Street, and set up their own dodgy share selling operations. I don't think these guys ever watched the end of the film, as they'd have learned that Leonardo Di Caprio got banged up for share fraud. These wide boys were mostly unrepentant about their actions and would boast about their amazing sales prowess, even though their grubby salesmanship involved conning old ladies out of their pensions.
7. Gang members
There is an epidemic of gang violence in London, and Wandsworth was overrun with young BAME lads who had been sucked into postcode wars. These territorial disputes were mirrored inside the jail, and warring gangs would claim the different wings as their territory. There were a few ringleaders, but many had been bullied or coerced into gangs, and are now stuck in the prison system for life.
8. White collar criminals
Wandsworth serviced Southwark Crown Court, which is where all the major financial crime cases are prosecuted. I'd often watch big fraud cases on the news, and then a few hours later see the perpetrators shuffle into reception. Most of these middle-class types congregated in my corner of the prison, which became known as 'Little Hampstead' as so many of us were from that area.
9. "It wasn't me!"
Lots of prisoners insisted they were the victim of some gross miscarriage of justice, and that they'd been stitched up by their wife/lawyer/co-defendant/the judge. I initially believed these self-pitying diatribes, before realising that these people had actually done something wrong, and were just stuck in denial.
10. Old school crims
Before my imprisonment I thought everyone in prison was basically Fletch from Porridge. However, these 'fair cop guv' types were few and far between. I did meet a fascinating diamond thief who fleeced Hatton Garden boutiques. He pretended to be a drunk Scottish millionaire on the hunt for an engagement ring. These old timers usually accepted their bird on the chin, and were often excellent chess players.
Chris Atkins book A Bit of a Stretch: The Diaries of a Prisoner, is out now.
If you feel affected by any of the issues raised in this article you can call Samaritans for free, 24/7 on 116 123.