A BIT OF A STRETCH
I find day-in-the-life insight type books to be quite fascinating, particularly from perspectives that you might not get a chance to learn about any other way. As a female reader who has always been as much as a ‘model’ citizen as possible, the male prison system definitely fits the bill! It’s a very interesting topic with the scope to allow for some humorous and scary situations but also for more serious discussions of politics and government funding. Chris Atkins finds a really nice balance in this; he has the somewhat unique perspective of a journalist who was sentenced to 5 years in prison, which means he got a full picture of the gritty underside of HMP Wandworth, rather than the rose-tinted tour that actual journalists get when visiting. There is a lot of humour and anecdotes which really show how over-bureaucratic and yet completely underfunded the prison system is. There are also some very personal and sad stories of individual prisoners including their backstories and sentences which makes the book hit home. Every chapter there’s also a section that tackles a topic raised such as hygiene, drugs or visitation rights and explores it in a wider context of UK prisons as a whole which was very interesting. Chris’ role helping the Samaritans and becoming a Listener also meant you got some hard to read stories of self-harm and psychological issues within the prison system and how this is dealt with.
As interesting an insight as this is, there is a certain element to which even Chris doesn’t get the full experience of prison life. Being middle-class, white and educated sets him apart from other prisoners who are treated differently. He also falls in with a very good crowd who mentor him and show him the ropes and how to play the system. Psychologically he also only has a relatively short stint in Wandsworth before moving to open prison and his family are completely supportive of him throughout with his child able to visit him regularly. This does mean you still get a slight bias as to his experience compared to prisoners in other circumstances. This does however, mean you have someone who is able to question the prison and reform system as it stands, and his last chapter is dedicated to first-hand suggestions of changes and improvements from someone who has been in those conditions.
Going through the book on my Kindle, I was quite disappointed that the footnotes where not linked in, however, when I got to the end and saw they were all just websites anyway it doesn’t actually detract much from the reading experience. I doubt I would have kept flicking to the end of a paper book to read them anyway! Some parts also felt a little repetitive in places but that is possibly because the book lends itself more to being dipped in and out of rather than read in a few sittings like I did!
Overall A Bit of a Stretch is a fascinating insight into the prison system which draws on humour but also makes a very serious point about the conditions of these institutions and how they are run. Thank you to NetGalley & Atlantic Books for the chance to read the ARC in exchange for an honest review.