A Bit of a Stretch by Chris Atkins is undoubtedly one of the most topical, funny and damning works of non-fiction that you will ever read. The book narrates, in diary form, the time that Atkins, Oxbridge graduate and award- winning filmmaker, spent in Wandsworth prison, after being convicted of tax fraud in 2016.
To say that Atkins’ representation of Wandsworth is “critical” would be an understatement. Each chapter focuses on one of the many (and there are a lot) flaws in the way that British prisons are run. From the excruciatingly inefficient system of paper bureaucracy to the many excuses invented by prisoners to escape the cells they are locked in for 23 hours a day (notably the mass Muslim attendance of AA meetings), Atkins presents Wandsworth to be just as Victorian as the bricks from which it is built.
The real power of Atkins’ book, for me, was the ways in which it brought the prison issue to the fore. Social debates often cover issues of gender, race and sexuality, all of which are vitally important, and yet, the conversation around prison reform seems to exist in some sort of tabooed vacuum. Making use of comedy as a bridge to his readers, Atkins presents the system as desperately in need of change and goes further to comically satirise the failures of recent governments to try and enact prison reform.
The comedy, however, is a necessary antidote to the heart-breaking truths that lie at the centre of the book. Atkins devotes a significant number of pages to exploring his role as a mental health “listener” in Wandsworth, exposing not only how the prison environment engenders severe mental health issues, but also the ways in which it grossly overlooks such issues. The prison system itself, Atkins argues, is responsible for the high reoffending rates in Britain, as nearly half of prison inmates reoffend within a year of being released.
The book is addictive. I laughed, I cried and I read it in a day. Please bear in mind, however, that it does discuss severe mental health issues and suicide; therefore meaning that it may be triggering for some.
P.S. Chris Atkins has also released a podcast series also titled A Bit of a Stretch. Each episode explores the day to day of prison life, alongside focusing on issues such as the Children of Prisoners and the issues around Rehabilitation. Ideal for those who are not such big readers.
– Lottie McGrath
Featureed Image Source: Lottie McGrath