‘Funny, shocking and powerful.’ The Secret Barrister
‘Fabulous. A must-read insight into why prison doesn’t work.’ Jon Snow
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.
HERE ARE MY THOUGHTS AND REVIEW
Chris Atkins was sentenced to serve five years in Wandsworth Prison in 2016 after being found guilty of tax evasion. For good behaviour, he was expected to serve just half that time. Although there have been umpteen documentaries about our prison system in the past, you always feel like certain situations have been staged. Chris by trade was a documentary maker and so over his time spent inside he kept a journal of day to day life there.
Now Chris does have a wicked humour which helps to lighten some of the grim reading and to be honest, inhumane conditions and red tape rules that are both costly and pointless but the message sank in. The prison system is shot, in need of more prison officers, better living standards and at least basic needs being met. What they have is 23 hours a day lockdowns and family becoming a thing of the past. I mean yes punish someone for their crime but don’t break them ruin them and turn them back out on the street without support.
Chris had been part of the privileged culture on the outside which had in many ways transferred with him on the inside. This even determined where you lived in there? Yes, you still have your ‘Park Street’ and ‘old Kent Road’ scenario, which could make life bearable or suicidal. When government officials haven’t a clue what hope is there? It doesn’t need a committee to talk about it for two years to come up with solutions it needs people to go in day after day until it is sorted.
This account from Chris should make the smelly stuff really hit the fan. I hope the right people listen.
Many thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for an e-copy of this book which I have reviewed honestly.
HERE, IS A LITTLE ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chris is best known as a documentary maker. His 2007 debut feature, Taking Liberties, was a Michael Moore inspired documentary castigating the Blair government for undermining civil liberties as part of the war against terror. The film played in dozens of cinemas across the UK, got very strong reviews and was nominated for a film BAFTA in 2008. Chris also wrote an accompanying book, also called Taking Liberties, which was published alongside the film.
His next film, Starsuckers, took aim at the celebrity obsessed media. The documentary became famous for selling fake celebrity stories to the tabloids, engineering a reverse undercover sting on red top hacks, and secretly filming Max Clifford boasting about covering up his clients’ sexual indiscretions. The film made the front page of The Guardian two days running, and faced down legal challenges from the News of The World, Clifford and Bob Geldof. The film premiered at the 2009 London Film Festival, was shown on Channel 4 several times, and was screened to the Leveson Inquiry into press standards.
Chris has also made several notorious TV current affairs films. He spent most of 2011 undercover, secretly filming corrupt private detectives who were running a black market in private information, which became a Dispatches special for Channel 4 – Watching the Detectives. He made another Dispatches special in 2013 – Celebs Brands and Fake Fans – and tricked a slew of Coronation Street stars into plugging fake products on social media. This sting made the front of The Sun and The Mirror, leading ITV to threaten to sue Channel 4. Later that year Chris investigated bad practise in big charities for BBC Panorama, and revealed that Comic Relief was secretly investing millions in alcohol, arms and tobacco companies. The film kicked up a huge press storm, forcing Comic Relief to sell its “sin stocks” and got Chris his 3rd BAFTA nomination.
In 2015 Chris wrote and directed a fiction film imagining what would happen if UKIP actually won that year’s general election. “UKIP: The First 100 Days” was broadcast on Channel 4, and led to an incendiary reaction from UKIP supporters who lodged over 6000 complaints with Ofcom, making it one of the most complained about TV dramas of all time.
In 2016 he was prosecuted for his involvement in an illegal tax scheme, which was used to fund his film Starsuckers. He was convicted in Southwark Crown court, along with several other defendants, and sentenced to five years imprisonment. He spent the first nine months of his sentence at HMP Wandsworth, and kept a detailed diary of his experiences. These have since been written up into a book, A Bit of a Stretch, which was the subject of a seven publisher bidding war when he was released in 2019. The book is due for publiction on the 6th February 2020, and has already won praise from The Secret Barrister, Jon Snow, Mark Thomas and John Niven.
He is now back in North London working on a music documentary, and making a podcast series about prison life.