Prisoner diaries

Karin Lock reviews A Bit of a Stretch by Chris Atkins

As we settle into our third national ‘lockdown’, it has not escaped attention that this word originates from the prison procedure of confining inmates to their cells following a riot. Spare a thought then for the many prisoners who have been on lockdown for 23 hours of every day since March 2020.

Reading Chris Atkins’ debut A Bit of a Stretch, about doing time in the UK’s crumbling dysfunctional penal system, is like stepping into a Dickensian time machine. Set in HMP Wandsworth (UK’s most overcrowded jail), the book is a sobering and forensic account of an outdated institution plagued by rats, spice dealers and a chronic lack of staff.

Sentenced in 2016 to five years for a film tax-avoidance scheme, the author spends his first nine months in the Victorian penitentiary. Starting out on the notorious E wing (aka Beirut), it is a baptism by fire for this privately educated documentary filmmaker. E wing is “awash with the most terrifying individuals I’ve ever seen… either severely mentally ill, off their heads on drugs, or both.”

Mental illness is a common theme throughout this incarceration story. Trained to be a Samaritan listener, Atkins witnesses horrific self-harm and trauma. He provides numerous statistics to support his claim that many prisoners are in dire need of specialist professional help. Prison officers receive little training in when to refer inmates for mental health assistance, and provision is scant.

A Bit of a Stretch is composed in diary form and maps the writer’s journey from E wing to the Trinity subsection of the prison. Here Atkins achieves ‘white collar club’ status mixing with the top echelon prisoner class – the banking fraudsters of financial crime – in the ‘executive suite’. As with life outside, the most affluent and educated get the best jobs and accommodation inside.

What is fascinating about A Bit of a Stretch are the many hoops the author has to jump through to get enhanced status (so he can get one visit a week). The administration system is a surreal paper mountain of ineffective “apps” and lists with no inherent logic. As a result, corruption is rampant as prisoners try to influence their status within the system.

Prison life revolves around devising schemes to keep out of your cell for as long as possible. For example, Alcoholics Anonymous and church services are chock full of teetotal Muslims. Atkins takes on numerous jobs: delivering ‘canteen’; delivering ‘visit slips’; inducting new prisoners. Prisoners seem to do all the jobs staff have no time or inclination to do.

Like Gregory David Robert’s Shantaram and Rusty Young’s Marching Powder, this is an autobiographical jail narrative that exposes the inhumane and farcical nature of the prison estate. Yet A Bit of a Stretch is also very entertaining, full of darkly comic moments, wry observations and fascinating characters. Comedy is a tactic for survival.

The book’s main argument is that prisons operate in a vacuum and are “extraordinarily badly run” by private corporations who have no interest in rehabilitation or reform. Peter Clarke, the outgoing Chief Inspector of Prisons, sums up the sorry state of UK prisons thus: “If prisoners don’t have
human rights, none of us do.”

As Britain feels the psychological impact of another containment (with curbs on exercise, education and family contact), it might change our view about the effectiveness of custodial punishment. A government report recently confirmed that ten times more people die from the effects of lockdown than from the flu virus. Locking people up for months on end is not the way to ensure a civilised society on any grounds.

Tottenham Community Press is published by Social Spider, a not-for-profit company. Please consider supporting us by signing up as a member.