Description Where can a tin of tuna buy you clean clothes? Which British education system struggles with 50 percent 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.
Chris Atkins (documentary-maker) did the crime and did the time... and took notes along the way to write and narrate this bang-up (ha! prison pun) account of his time in prison. From just before his arrival, we follow his journey through the various wings of HMP Wandsworth and the horrible conditions therein.
Like Atkins, I've never put a whole lot of thought into what prisons are really like. I guess working off the assumption I'll never end up in one (being an honest and stand up kind of guy) the day to day realities aren't something I ever put any time into thinking about.
And fair cop, I don't know if the prison life represented in this book is in any way representative of prisons in Australia where I am, but I can't help but think there would be a lot of similarities. The rhetoric spun out by those "tough on crime" here in Australia shares much in common with that told in Atkins' story.
Atkins is locked up on a five-year stretch, which means he'll serve about 2 and a half inside. The prison conditions are appalling and get worse and the story unfolds as prison cutbacks and other factors mean many prisoners are locked up with no chance of leaving their cells for days at a time.
He gets in with other "white-collar" criminals and essentially brown-noses his way into a better wing with better conditions, more time out of the cells and more time to talk to his kid on the phone. If I'm being honest, I'd probably do the same thing given the chance so I don't fault him at all for sucking up to the those in charge.
At times heartbreaking, and other times laugh-out-loud funny, Chris spins the tale like the season documentary maker he is. He makes astute observations along the way with the failings in the prison system, with impassioned pleas I hope somebody in power listens to.
There's a famous quote by Fyodor Dostoevsky that goes:
"The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons."
It was something I thought about a lot while listening to this book and landed on the conclusion that most societies if judged by this standard would fall way short. Indeed, Atkins mentions something similar towards the end of the book.
There are frequent "asides" in the book which are marked with brief interludes of music. These, Atkins explains, are individual sections in the printed book. They're absolutely invaluable to the story so I am glad they found such an interesting way to keep them and make it obvious when you were dropping out of the "diary" flow and into "explanation" sections.
A fantastic listen that kept me riveted throughout... and gave me new insights into a world so foreign to me yet is such a part of everyday society. Hopefully, it inspires the changes needed to improve the prison systems of the world.