A Bit of a Stretch by Chris Atkins
In 2016, the documentary-maker Chris Atkins was given a five-year prison sentence for using a tax scam to fund one of his films, said Rosamund Urwin in The Sunday Times. Having become that “rare breed, a middle-class liberal who has seen the true horror of our penal system”, he has “done the inevitable” and written a memoir about his time inside. Focusing on his first nine months in jail, at HMP Wandsworth in south London, A Bit of a Stretch is a darkly funny work which also makes a compelling case for reform. Atkins starts out in a graffiti-ridden cell in “Beirut”, one of Wandsworth’s toughest wings, said Yvonne Roberts in The Observer. His cellmate, a cocaine dealer named Ted, soon gives him a valuable lesson in “shitiquette”: he turns up the volume on the Victoria Derbyshire show on television and disappears behind the toilet curtain. “Why do we have to listen to this crap?” Atkins asks. “So you don’t have to listen to mine,” Ted replies.
Most prisoners on Beirut are locked up 23 hours a day, said Blake Morrison in The Guardian. To get out of his cell, and earn money and other privileges, Atkins involves himself in as many activities as possible – including “dry lining”, even though he has no idea what that is. Soon, he is moved to H wing, the “prison equivalent of Hampstead”, where, in a “strange mirror of wider society”, he is surrounded by fellow former public schoolboys. Atkins is a “fantastically informative” guide to life inside, offering sharp insights and “boxes full of statistics”, along with amusing examples of prison slang (an electronic tag is a “chav nav” or “Peckham Rolex”). He ends with a set of “straightforward proposals” for making prisons both more humane and more effective. “What are the chances of them being adopted?”