A Bit of a Stretch: The Diaries of a Prisoner by Chris Atkins
|A Bit of a Stretch: The Diaries of a Prisoner by Chris Atkins|
|Category: Politics and Society|
|Reviewer: Sue Magee|
|Summary: Very readable, thought-provoking and important. we need better prisons. Honestly.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 336||Date: February 2020|
|External links: Author's website|
Documentary filmmakers don't usually get the run of establishments within the Mountbatten-Windsor Hotel Group, but after getting involved in an illegal tax scheme to fund his latest film, Chris Atkins was invited for a five-year stay. The first nine months were spent in HMP Wandsworth, which is probably the oldest, largest and most dysfunctional prison in Europe.
The first thing which struck Atkins when he arrived at Wandsworth was the assault on the senses of the noise: nothing prepared him for this. The second was that the prisoners in Wandsworth didn't resemble the ones he'd seen in films and on television. They were tanned and fit: Atkins' fellow prisoners were pale and generally unhealthy. Prisoners (or men as an edict said that they were to be called) were supposed to be allowed out of the cells for exercise, but this depended on the availability and goodwill of the prison officers. Atkins had the misfortune of being sent down in 2016 in the midst of the worst prison crisis in history. A shortage of staff meant that prisoners had to spend more time locked in their cells: this created more mental health problems and more violence, which with unbending circularity meant that prisoners had to spend more time locked in their cells.
Why would teetotal Muslims join Alcoholics Annonymous? Well, it got them out of their cells for an hour. Why was there a rush to sign up for as many different religions as possible? For exactly the same reason.
The Prisons Minister, Liz Truss maintained that family ties are vital for prisoners' rehabilitation, but in the early stages of a sentence the visits were restricted to two visits of an hour's duration each month. Atkins had a four-year-old son and it was only thanks to the goodwill and foresight of his ex-girlfriend that he was able to maintain the relationship with Kit.
The book is darkly humorous. The thought that there were so many illegal mobile phones in the prison that Atkins wouldn't have been surprised to find a Phones4U popup in the servery left me giggling. There was also the problem which arose when Atkins paid more than one tin of tuna to get his clothes washed and was ranted at by another prisoner for causing a failure in Keynesian economics and price inflation.
I could continue to give you examples of the ridiculousness of life in Wandsworth (Paracetamol can't be dispensed after 4 pm) but you really should read the book for yourself. Atkins describes prisons morphing into warehouses for the mentally ill and from what he says it's difficult to disagree with him. He emerged from his sentence relatively unscathed but did have the advantage of being educated, white, middle class, relatively affluent and [without] a mental illness. Few others are quite so lucky.
I probably wouldn't have read this book if I'd realised that the prison sentence arose from a tax crime - in another career, I would have been on the opposing team - but Chris Atkins accepts that he did the crime and apart from saying that he didn't really understand what he was getting into, doesn't offer any weaselly self-justification. (Hint: if you don't understand the ramifications of any financial or tax arrangements which you're considering then they're best avoided.) I'm glad that I did read the book as I found it interesting, worrying and very funny in places. I hope that it's widely read and (more importantly) acted upon by those in a position to do something about the conditions in HMP Wandsworth. I did enjoy the book and was sorry when it finished: in fact, I did quietly wish that Atkins had had a longer stretch...
I'd like to thank the publishers for letting Bookbag have an advance copy for review.
If you'd like more on what it's really like in prison we can recommend The Little Book of Prison by Frankie Owens.
You could get a free audio download of A Bit of a Stretch: The Diaries of a Prisoner by Chris Atkins with a 30-day Audible free trial at Amazon.co.uk.
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