A Bit Of A Stretch by Chris Atkins review

A Bit Of A Stretch Book Cover A Bit Of A Stretch
Chris Atkins
Atlantic Books
February 02, 2020

Where can a tin of tuna buy you clean clothes? Where is it easier to get 'spice' than paracetamol? Where does self-harm barely raise an eyebrow?

Welcome to Her Majesty's Prison Service. Like most people, documentary-maker Chris Atkins didn't spend much time thinking about prisons. But after becoming embroiled in a dodgy scheme to fund his latest film, he was sent down for five years. His new home would be HMP Wandsworth, one of the largest and most dysfunctional prisons in Europe.

With a cast of characters ranging from wily drug dealers to senior officials bent on endless reform, this powerful memoir uncovers the horrifying reality behind the locked gates. Filled with dark humour and shocking stories, A Bit of a Stretch reveals why our creaking prison system is sorely costing us all.

Chris Atkins, the author, was a documentary maker. He became embroiled in a tax scam which led to him being prosecuted. Sentenced to five years in prison initially in HMP Wandsworth, he decided to keep a diary of his time in prison. A Bit Of A Stretch is the result. It shows at least some of the highs and lows of his time there and of Wandsworth and the prison system generally.

This is one of those books where the publisher’s blurb is largely true. Indeed it outlines a number of the events and stories in this book. The fact that Chris is both relatively well educated and has the background of a documentary maker gives this book insights that might not be gained from other writers. The book shows him as a good observer of people and very human. The initial feelings of being separated from his young son and unable to contact people are powerful. During his time in Wandsworth Chris becomes a “Listener”, effectively a Samaritan. In this role he sees and deals with some extremely troubled prisoners.

In among the stories of prison life are “asides” about prisons, their regimes and politicians views more generally. A number of these were very interesting indeed. There are many examples I could give – indeed I could fill this review with them. However the best thing would be to think about reading the book yourself if that interests you. That said I will share two or three points that particularly struck me.

I found particularly troubling the story of the Lithuanian teenager. Days before he committed suicide he was seen by a mental nurse but was not allowed a translator. She couldn’t understand him and decided he was fit to stay on the block.

There is puzzlement from a Danish academic visiting the prison. He can’t understand how it possible to rehabilitate prisoners who are locked up for 23 hours a day.

In his role as a Listener, Chris deals with a teenager who, having tried to hang himself several times, is under observation. The cell he is in has no privacy at all. He is paranoid and schizophrenic. All he has eaten for two days is razor blades. The idea that Chris should get him something in the way of food to eat gets mixed reactions from prison staff!

I did find Chris’s reflections on his fellow prisoners one of the interesting parts of this. He becomes friendly with another prisoner who is there for his part in defrauding inexperienced investors through scams. Chris found him a caring person both towards Chris himself and because he was an experienced Listener who had helped many people. The juxtaposition is striking.

As someone who has been a supporter of and interested in prison reform for many years now much of what is in here comes as no surprise to me. However even a small amount of thought would suggest that what is going on in prisons is worrying. There seems little understanding of any objective as far as prisoners are concerned.

The good bits in A Bit Of A Stretch can be all or any of the following – interesting/troubling/powerful . Some aspects are I found maybe rather more juvenile. It is certainly a valid insight into life in prison or Wandsworth at least. For me however it seemed to become less objective as time goes by and is more self centred. Many people will find this perfectly acceptable and entertaining on some level. However the balance between humour and cutting edge insights is a difficult path to tread and this book did not always succeed in that for me. I would definitely recommend it to anyone with an interest in the subject though.

Note – I received an advance digital copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair review