Book Review: “A Bit of A Stretch: The Diaries of a Prisoner” by Chris Atkins.
Chris was sent to Wandsworth Prison as a white collar criminal. This sets him apart from the majority of people in the jail, and he is acutely aware of this - he goes out of his way to describe both his own experience inside, and how that changes for those of different backgrounds. This gives the book a wealth of insight and perspective that would be lost on those totally oblivious to their own privileges, making it an immediate, journalistic read - rather than the “Dante’s inferno” style house-of-socioeconomic-horrors memoir that would otherwise have been written.
Chris tells the story with humour and it’s a very easy read. He volunteers as a befriender - partially to escape the frequent twenty - three hour bang ups caused by a combination of indifference and staffing shortages - and takes us through the stories of prisoners who have difficulties with mental health and substances.
Particularly interesting are the sections in which the government background is described - much is included about the recently ousted Tory leader Liz Truss’s execrable run as justice minister, for example, as well as harrowing accounts of how things have changed due to COVID in the jail (spoiler: they’ve gotten worse).
On the whole, Chris seems to understand the absolute folly of the carceral system, and how this is supported by prejudice, a scheme set up to keep people surpressed, and the public desire for revenge (“The British public has developed a sadistic mindset towards prisons, and fiercely resists any policies that actually rehabilitate offenders”). In his summary, he says “I hope that this book has provided enough evidence that the prison system as a whole has failed on an epic scale” - something it does indeed, and something too that abolitionists will be very familiar with.
What I do have issue with, is his solution - that the good element working in the system, and in government, just needs to have the right mindset, priorities and regulations, and things will turn to the good (“Once the public gives the government the space it needs to make radical and modernising change, prisons might finally start encouraging offenders to turn their backs on crime”).
Though this quote shows the reformist intentions of the author - which, after all, are sincerely held and conveyed - nothing of the rest of the book supports this conclusion. There is much on the sadism of both the system and the screws, and the indifference of the inept merry-go-round of politicians and policemen put in charge of the whole shambles. So much so that the picture emerges instead, of something that should be smashed rather than reformed. His insights can be confusing, for example, when he says- “Prison is what lies behind the mirror of consumer capitalism, the unseen consequence of telling everyone they can have whatever they want”.
This seems to equate being in prison, with not just being a victim of the capitalist system, but rather a “moral failing” of greed. It’s a little jarring from an account which otherwise has a great deal of sympathy and understanding of the holistic problems the prison population face.
IWOC Book Review December 2022