Where can a tin of tuna buy you clean clothes? Where is it easier to get ‘spice’ than paracetamol? Where does self-harm barely raise an eyebrow?
Welcome to Her Majesty’s Prison Service. 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 largest and most dysfunctional prisons in Europe.
With a cast of characters ranging from wily drug dealers to senior officials bent on endless reform, this powerful memoir uncovers the horrifying reality behind the locked gates. Filled with dark humour and shocking stories, A Bit of a Stretch reveals why our creaking prison system is sorely costing us all – and why you should care.
I enjoyed A Bit Of A Stretch far more than I thought I would. I went into it expecting it to be a woe-is-me account of Chris Atkins’ spell in prison, but it couldn’t be more different. He owns the fact that he committed a crime and he also acknowledges his white, middle class privilege that enabled his prison experience to be, if not comfortable, somewhat more bearable.
A Bit Of A Stretch isn’t just a prison diary. It’s a frank, much-needed discussion about the UK’s prison system. After reading A Bit Of A Stretch, though, I find it difficult to refer to it as a system. The dictionary definition of the word is ‘a set of connected things or devices that operate together‘, but Atkins’ account reveals that it’s more of a shambles than a system, with lines of communication between different departments being virtually non-existent, making it impossible for them to ‘operate together’.
People in the UK, particularly those of a more conservative mindset, are obsessed with prisons being places of punishment. Growing up, I would often hear family members responding to news reports about offenders with the phrase “Lock ’em up and throw away the key”. These people, and countless others the length and breadth of the UK, are aghast when they hear that prison inmates have access to TVs, games consoles and education. The availability of such things in prisons is greatly exaggerated by the media, but those who devour tabloid newspapers and lap up the torrent of misinformation on social media decry the fact that their taxes are apparently being spent on giving prison inmates not only a shred of dignity and comfort, but a chance to learn and better their post-prison prospects. As far as some people are concerned, prison should be as uncomfortable and degrading for an inmate as humanly possible. It should be a punishment, not, as various news outlets have dubbed it, a ‘holiday camp‘. Despite what’s reported, though, UK prisons do not resemble holiday camps in any way, shape or form. As Chris Atkins mentions on numerous occasions throughout his book, a lot of prisoners are locked up for 23 hours a day. When they are let out of their cells, they have mere minutes to do things such as shower and phone loved ones. On one of the wings that Atkins stayed on in Wandsworth, there were six shower heads for 180 inmates to share and the floor of the shower room was, “ankle deep in plastic bags, razors, floss and shampoo bottles” (p. 27). This is just scratching the surface of the indignities that inmates in UK prisons have to face. With such appalling conditions, it’s hardly surprising that prison suicide rates reached an all time high in 2016, with Ministry of Justice statistics revealing that 119 inmates killed themselves during that year, which equates to one every three days (p. 245). Statistics from 2019 show that 27, 389 inmates were on ACCT (assessment, care in custody and teamwork) plans, plans that are geared towards those at risk of suicide and self harm. This is an increase of almost 60% on the 2010 figures. These figures show that prison life is a far cry from the life of luxury that so many people seem to think it is.
But these punishing, degrading and inhumane conditions that prison inmates are forced to endure don’t actually prevent people from reoffending upon release. It’s estimated that 48% of people reoffend when released from UK prisons, compared to just 27% of people being released from prisons in Denmark (p. 163). The key difference between UK and Danish prisons is that in Denmark the focus is on rehabilitation as opposed to punishment. Moreover, they’re treated like human beings.
Having worked as a Samaritans Listener during his time at Wandsworth, Atkins saw first-hand the detrimental impact that the UK prison system has upon inmates. He concludes A Bit Of A Stretch by listing the ways in which the prison system needs to change, not just for the sake of prisoners’ mental health, but to make custodial sentences as effective as they are in places such as Denmark.
Unless we know someone who’s been incarcerated, most of us don’t think about the lives of prisoners, but I implore people to read this book. It’s an eye-opening, heart-wrenching read that is guaranteed to change the way that you look at UK prisons and the people housed behind their walls.