A shocking and darkly funny account of the reality of Britain’s prisons.
Where can a tin of tuna buy you clean clothes? Which British education system struggles with 50% illiteracy? Where do teetotal Muslims attend AA meetings? Where is it easier to get ‘spice’ than paracetamol? Where does self-harm barely raise an eyebrow?
Welcome to Her Majesty’s Prison Service, a creaking and surreal world that has been left to rot for decades in the shadows of polite society. 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.
Horrifying, moving, and darkly funny, this is the unvarnished depiction of what he found. With a cast of characters ranging from wily drug dealers to corrupt screws to senior officials bent on endless (and fruitless) reform, this is the reality behind the locked gates. Full of incredible and hilarious stories, A Bit of a Stretch reveals the true scale of our prison crisis and why it is costing us all.
I really enjoyed this entertaining, interesting and, at times, shocking account of documentary maker Chris Atkin’s time in Wandsworth Prison. Because he is sent to prison for a while collar crime (described in the synopsis as “becoming embroiled in a dodgy scheme to fund his latest film”) he sees Wandsworth through different eyes and a different perspective to many other prisoners perhaps would. Having kept a diary throughout his time there, he recounts some of the crazy, sad and horrifying experiences that he and his fellow inmates experience whilst locked up, and provides a commentary on the failings of the British prison system.
It’s such an interesting read for me because I find anything about prisons interesting – I suppose because it’s somewhere I’ll (hopefully) never go and never experience. It also does a great job of highlighting the funnier parts to prison life, in ways the reader may not expect, and Atkins often recountd this with a large dose of dry humour.
The book is brilliantly written and feels incredibly honest and utterly disarming; I felt like I was there with Chris, serving time and experiencing the crazy ways of HMP Wandsworth, and the prison officers tasked with both keeping them under control and ‘looking after’ the prisoners – some are much better at this than others! It’s absolutely shocking to read some of the stories – such as how many promises are broken to inmates (it seems to happen all the time) and cock ups with paperwork leading to prisoners having to serve more time than their sentences. Some are even more serious and involve medical issues – they could have been life threatening if someone hadn’t stepped in.
I really enjoyed A Bit of a Stretch and would recommend it to anyone, whether they’re interested initially in the topic or not. It’s an incredibly interesting, thoughtful and surprising read.
Many thanks to the publisher, Atlantic Books, for providing a copy of this book on which I chose to write an honest and unbiased review.