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 oldest, largest, and most dysfunctional prisons in Europe.
This is the unvarnished depiction of what he found.
If you thought you knew how bad British prisons are, you haven’t read this book. Drugs, riots, suicides, squalor, overcrowding, understaffing, dangerous criminals let out early, minor offenders kept in too long or wrongly banged up in the first place; that’s only a fraction of the story ... It’s an inside story to make you weep at the incompetence, stupidity and viciousness of the current system ... Atkins admits that keeping his diary was personally helpful – a way of staying sane. It’s also, for all its knockabout humour, fantastically informative ... His epilogue lists the changes he’d introduce were he ever appointed justice secretary. They are humane, straightforward and make good sense. What are the chances of them being adopted by the current incumbent, Robert Buckland? As someone who once invested in a film partnership that HMRC investigated as a tax avoidance scheme, he and Atkins have some common ground. Let’s hope against hope they get together and that some of the reforms proposed here are implemented before conditions in our prisons get even worse.
There has been a good deal of excellent writing, in the last few years, about jail and African-American men ... Atkins’s book....is a different, less harrowing sort of volume. But it’s a good one. He’s a sensitive observer, sober but alert to wincing varieties of humor. He’s not one of those people who, in T.S. Eliot’s phrase, 'had the experience but missed the meaning.' ... Atkins’s best writing is about what imprisonment does to one’s body and mind: the adrenaline surge of arrival in prison, the taste of shock in one’s mouth. He writes about the exhaustion prisoners feel, a vastly more extreme version of what many have felt during quarantine ... He spends nine months at Wandsworth before he is transferred to a minimum-security prison to serve the remainder of this time. His diary ends with his transfer. He writes that prison made him a better person; he’s less of a judgmental soul. A Bit of a Stretch may not be a major book, but it’s soulful indeed.
...a razor-sharp and darkly funny memoir that should be mandatory reading for justice ministers, ministry officials, Her Majesty’s inspectors, and anyone at all interested in the anarchy that is the UK prisons system. Behind bars, Atkins seems to have kept his sanity by turning an imaginary camera on himself ... Prison is not the Oxford-educated filmmaker’s natural habitat. But there are some funny and touching moments ... Does prison work? In a very narrow sense, just about. Despite what some campaigners claim, there is probably a link between the generally lower levels of crime today and the fact that the UK prison population has risen by 69 percent over the past 30 years. One gathers, in this case, that Atkins will not be scamming the taxman again anytime soon. Yet it is hard to avoid two conclusions when reading his lurid account of prison life. That, if a society is judged by how it treats criminals, we can hardly call ourselves civilized — and that the organization which manages this national scandal, the Ministry of Justice, isn’t up to the job.