‘I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.’ –Anne Frank
I’ve recently been immersed in the book ‘A Bit of a Stretch’ in which documentary film-maker Chris Atkins charts his imprisonment in the notorious Wandsworth gaol, following a 5 year sentence for fraud. This insider’s shocking account of the state of our prison system makes for both a darkly humorous and deeply disturbing read; 50% of inmates are illiterate, and many of them very young and vulnerable men with mental health problems who are effectively abused by the staff, the management and the system, denied basic medical care or access to the education or rehabilitation allegedly on offer.
As a white, Oxford-educated middle-class man, Chris’s account gives a unique view into a system on its knees that seems to be perpetuating and enabling the conditions that only lead to further despair, poor mental health and desperate acts that prolong inmates’ suffering. How did Chris cope with his time inside? He fared better than most, having the internal resources and outside support to stay afloat when the system seemed determined to make no sense and to crush his journey to an open prison. But one thing does act as an antidote to the deep anxiety that threatens to overwhelm him – he wrote.
“Writing my diary helps immeasurably. I’ve now scrawled hundreds of pages about my Wandsworth experiences, and I’ve yet to confront a traumatic event that hasn’t been eased by writing about it afterwards. On the outside I’d deal with upsetting situations by pointing a camera at them; now I’m doing much the same with a pen and paper”.
The very process of taking up a pen and capturing what we are feeling in black and white on the page causes us to slow down a little, to steady breathing, making thoughts a bit clearer, and often opening up space for reflection – which can lead to more positive thinking, and the possibility of a clearer or more optimistic path ahead.