Chris Atkins is a journalist and filmmaker who was found guilty of being passively involved in a tax scam, the profits from which ended up funding his hard-hitting expose style documentaries. He was given 5 years (2.5 with good behaviour) and was initially sent to the infamous Wandsworth prison, although once he had only 24 months left on his sentence, he would be able to request a transfer to an Open Prison, meaning a much less restrictive, and more pleasant environment.
Chris decided to make the best use of his time and keep a diary, no-doubt with an eye to writing a book, or perhaps making another documentary once his time was up. Indeed, ‘A Bit of a Stretch’ is definitely an eye-opener and looks set to do for prison what Adam Kay’s ‘This is Going to Hurt’ did for hospitals. If you were a fan of that wonderful book, I think you’ll love this one too.
After sentencing, Chris is understandably overwhelmed with the enormous life-changing event he is experiencing, and the consistent, and flabbergasting level of incompetence shown by the prison bureaucrats and officers alike, does nothing to help with the transition. Separated from his son Kit, and unable to get a visiting order as the toddler must undergo a DBS check before he’s allowed to visit his Dad(!), Chris sinks quickly into a deep depression, punctuated with terror at his current situation and desperation at his prospects in prison and beyond.
A talented and engaging writer, Chris has captured the futility and brutality within the prison system; a system that is very obviously broken and based on punishment rather than the reform it promises to deliver. The statistics on re-offending, and horrifically, the rocketing (and often fudged) suicide numbers are all the proof needed that the system is not working, and the popular tabloid-fuelled perception that prison is like a holiday camp seems to be hampering the best intentions of pro-reformers to introduce measures that will improve the lives of prisoners, such as basic human rights, and giving them reasons to not reoffend once they get on the right side of the prison gates. It seems that locking them up like animals for 23 hours a day, then lying about it to the powers above is the way that prisons now manage their responsibilities, although when you read about how the experienced staff are being pushed out, and even the officers that do care are stretched to the absolute limit, it’s not really a huge surprise.
Chris makes these points well, and with humour. He is factual, self-deprecating, sometimes flippant (am sure he needed to do this in order to survive in this type of environment), and above all aware that he has a very privileged experience of prison compared to most. He’s a smart, well-educated white-collar man, who is able to write letters, and form defences, which buys him an in with the most influential prisoners in the joint. From here he seizes his opportunities (which is kind of what got him into trouble in the first place) and becomes friendly with screws and inmates alike.
It’s this privilege that will hopefully open this world to those who wouldn’t usually entertain the thought of reading a book written by a prisoner – in the minds of many, Chris Atkins isn’t your regular prisoner – which is why it makes what he has to say so important. He is a voice for all of those who would not find themselves taken seriously because of their appearance, their status, their crimes…
This is a very easy to read book. I read it in ‘staves’ that were released day by day via the Pigeonhole book club – and I couldn’t wait for the next one to come out each day. You don’t need to concentrate too much, it’s a light and flowing style and it’s a nice easy read. Makes your blood boil at times, but it’s a great read, and hopefully will shine a light on the prison service and the huge changes that need to be made to stop a national crisis before it becomes too late (if it isn’t already). If you think prisoners have it ‘too easy’ you’ll maybe think differently after reading this.