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Photograph: trabantos /
Photograph: trabantos /

‘The thing that saves you is the routine.’ How to deal with cabin fever by a former prisoner

By Kate Solomon

Who better to tell us how to deal with the endless tedium and cabin fever of self-isolation than someone who spent 30 months at Her Majesty’s pleasure? Here’s how former prisoner Chris Atkins, author of ‘A Bit of a Stretch: The Diaries of a Prisoner’, reckons we can weather the indoor storm.

The thing that saves you is the routine. In prison, if your routine gets disrupted it really fucks with your head. Things have to happen at certain times and you have to do them in a certain order, and you just totally latch on to that.

Now I’ve got a better view and I’ve got better coffee but actually, it’s not a million miles away, either. Obviously not seeing my son was the worst thing about prison – but in terms of filling your day and lack of social contact, it’s very similar.

 You adapt to environments very, very quickly. For the first month or so I went: ‘Oh my God, being in prison is a total pisser.’ And then I stopped saying that. I would just get up and go, ‘I wonder if we’re gonna get a shower today.’

The crucial thing is filling those hours and not not letting that overwhelm you. You learn quite quickly how to compartmentalise time and assign little mini-goals to break things up. Break time up into chunks. I always focused on something in the immediate future rather than this massive thing at the end.

I used my time. I read, I kept a diary, I turned it into a book and I also did an Open University degree in psychology. And it’s different in prison – you can either do a full highbrow degree or nothing; outside you don’t have those restrictions. English people are terrible at languages. Learn a language!

When I got out of prison, I was actually quite introverted, socially. I didn’t want to go out – I’ve literally just got over that. I decided: Okay this is gonna be the year I go out, go to the theatre, see my friends... and then this happens.

The number one complaint that people had was that their cellmate was driving them nuts. There was no real solution to that, to be honest with you. I had four cellmates and we’d always find something communal to do together; with one cellmate, we got obsessed with crosswords. Another, it was backgammon. So we’d share something, we’d create boundaries – and we’d suck it up.

Keep up to date with all the latest Covid-19 news and advice in London.  

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