A Bit of a Stretch: A Community Silenced by Modern Stigma.
Reviewing Chris Atkins’ autobiography A Bit of a Stretch, Maddie Noton investigates the realities of prison life and the damaging effects that public opinion and stigma can have surrounding prisons.
Inspired by the song Ocean of Tears By Caroline Polacheck, the artists fused their unique illustrative and digital styles into a collaborative work. The piece responds to the pain of a long term relationship reimagined in the current global context, as both artists created the work in isolation halfway across the globe from each other.The artwork resonates with the book "A Bit of a Stretch": the depicted chains which entangle the figure represent physical imprisonment itself along with the prisoner's ties and struggles with sexism, budget cuts, coming to terms with guilt, drug abuse and suicide attempts which sucks them into an ocean of anguish.
Currently confined within the four walls of our own homes, it has become commonplace to comparatively view our own miserable predicament with that of a prison institution, especially alongside a rapid decline in mental health awareness. I had similarly found this a helpful analogy in communicating the entrapping repercussions of COVID-19. However, after reading about the trials and tribulations that prisoners routinely face in Chris Atkins’ autobiography A Bit of a Stretch, this seemingly fitting comparison has become somewhat inappropriate and it appears, to me, abundantly naive to attempt to identify with this idea.
Comfortably encumbered on a coffee-shop armchair, drinking in both my cup of tea and the details of conventional brutality of prison life, I felt greatly unsettled as Atkins painted a picture of the structural fragility within this society: prisoners denied family visits because of guards forgetting to sign slips; suicidal inmates ignored and forgotten; officers either drunk with authority or subjected to harassment and abuse – particularly the female staff. Neglected by mainstream media coverage, these residents often fail to arouse our pity due to the unethical backdrop of their crimes, a concept nurtured by modern media that installs fear in us through the mere mention of punishment. However, it is important to give attention to prisons - the squashed and silenced aspect of society which we falsely believe has little impact on our own lives. Yet, as Atkins draws upon, the consequences of these corrupt institutions affect us as much as they do their residents.
Upon being sentenced to five years at HMP Wandsworth in London on charges of fraud, Atkins uses his role as an inmate to expose the life of prison community, not from the perspective of an ambitious journalist composing a documentary, but as an actual subject: the prisoner, leading to the exposure of a deteriorating institution, held together by a weak thread of government bodies who would rather shun than rehabilitate convicts. Throughout this book, Atkins collates a mixture of personal anecdotes and secondary accounts from peers, all supported by facts and statistics which add to the credibility of his argument. His narrative of experience is interwoven with humorous middle class concerns and heavy waves of remorse, making himself a character easy to empathise with, especially as we (accompanying Atkins himself) enter a world which adheres to its own rules and customs and receives little to no media coverage from reliable sources.
Submitting himself to naked vulnerability, he spares no details and fully admits to his crime, instead of expectantly wiggling his way out of accountability. By stripping himself of any cries of innocence and coming to terms with his guilt, our protagonist enters prison an equal, with no more moral superiority than that of his convicted neighbour. Much like a quivering foal learning to walk, Atkins stumbles along in his prison journey, eventually scaling his way up the institutional hierarchy. It would appear that much of his success, however, is accredited to overwhelming good fortune, rather than an abidance to inmate rules, which regularly rewards misdoings and punishes good behaviour. He also makes note of the privilege he receives in being both educated, white and middle-class which serves as harsh commentary on the backwards nature of this system, despite modern efforts to unpick archaic injustice.
There is undoubtedly an overwhelming sense of racial, class and religious divide within prison life. Almost to the extent that our writer becomes increasingly numb to his cellmate’s explicitly derogatory comments, and it is frightening how simple the steps seem to be to becoming radicalised. Systematic sexism is also frequently drawn upon in this text. One cellmate of Atkins’ plasters his walls with atrocious images of naked women and pornography, even reluctant to allow a picture of Atkins’ son to minutely cover a fragment. This inherent sexism carries through in physical interactions too: the female officers are routinely subjected to sexual harassment, which they dismiss with shocking nonchalance. We would not be far wrong in describing prison as an entirely separate world, where moral standards are fractured by unchangeably, backwards mentalities. What I found as further shocking, however, was the passive acceptance of these thought processes. Rather than discouraging misogynistic mind sets like Atkins’ cellmate, this system allows room for this behaviour to continue and may provide reason to the 50% reoffenders statistic.
Over the course of his writing, Atkins points to the bigger picture: budget cuts. Budget cuts which lead to understaffing, prisoner overflow and subsequent improper care and rehabilitation for inmates. After two and a half years in the system, our author has not readjusted his moral perspective on the charges for which he was convicted, but instead has seen the ever-growing fractures in the prison institution. His writing is often accompanied by statistical and factual backing, although much of his research notes a suspicious absence of prison published data, adding to an already unsettling array of institutional miscommunication. It appears to readers, as much as it does inmates, that these systems function on the authority of its residents, with the prisoners being assigned power by accumulation of jobs that help to operate the everyday prison life, and permit inmates as much time outside solitary confinement as possible. Atkins writes that these laborious jobs also provided workers with benefits such as access to the phone, showers and a flourishing reputation, which would come in handy when in need of a favour from higher powers.
Although mentioned throughout, government influence and input remain unsurprisingly absent in our writer’s experience. Able to maintain a steady connection with the outside, he follows the political career of Elizabeth Truss – the former Secretary of State for Justice – who appears in physical form but once. Her singular visit and hasty retreat are a stark reflection of the dismissal of proper attention, which the prison systems crave. This is hardly a shocking revelation given modern society’s downcast view on prisoners and those in the system. It seems highly unlikely that we, as a nation, would choose to donate to rehabilitation programmes for convicted felons when there are other compelling charities which don’t associate with the notion of punishment and reform. It remains, however, a harsh comment on public judgment that we feel comfortable enough to sweep these issues under the carpet, believing that they have no impact on our own lives. In fact, if reformation programmes were properly developed, our rate of re-offenders might not skyrocket to the extent it currently does.
Another saddening fact of this text dealt with the consistent and almost normalised repetition of drug abuse, alongside shockingly high suicide and mental health statistics. The two of which appear to go hand in hand. Atkins’ reoccurring mention of the drug, coined by the term ‘Spice’, appears to be more easily attainable inside than it does out, making drug rehabilitation an almost impossible feat. Beginning in his career as a ‘Listener’ – inmates who sit with and attempt to comfort peers in psychological distress – Atkins divulges into the dark and tormenting encounters that he was forced to deal with on a regular basis. Owing to a lacking number of mental health professionals, the gruelling effects of deteriorating psychological stability is thrusted on inmates who take on these jobs. Atkins details horrifically violent incidents as well as unsettling conversations and makes reference to several cases where suicide and self-harm are ignored, overlooked or simply written-off as bad behaviour. Atkins’ coping mechanism manifests itself in humour and communication with peers. However, readers may struggle to share the joke, especially as we consider the impacts of COVID-19 on these men. Indeed, 23 hours confined within a cell hardly helps anyone’s psyche.
As a reader, I was undoubtedly shocked and unsettled by the messages within this book, as it implored its readers to perhaps simply acknowledge the struggles of those outside of regular society and shunned by all areas of authority, which have the ability to help. However, Atkins’ words were not properly brought home until a startling conversation with a close friend of mine tore down the usual walls between reader and writer. She rejected all notions of sympathy for prisoners, claiming that their sufferings within these institutions served as acute recompense for the crimes which landed them there. Despite my attempts to humanise her argument, she adamantly refused to pity the victims of this finitely damaging system of improper care. Indeed, we are all entitled to our own opinions, irrespective of how much they challenge our own. However, the realisation of this general passive acceptance of injustice within prison walls was not properly highlighted until this moment. It made me realise the systematic and cyclical nature of the damaging effects of public stigma surrounding prisons; damage that will cease to change unless our own attitudes do.
This book is certainly clever in its unmitigated description of life from inside. Chris Atkins actually ends his work by didactically noting that we should all spend some time in prison. He claims that his experience was revolutionary and educational, proving that documentaries from an outside perspective do very little to expose the corruption of these systems from within. Indeed, it would be easy to subscribe to the cliche mentality of “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time”, yet this overly simplistic and naïve approach to criminality comes from an incredibly privileged attitude. Inmates like Chris Atkins are an anomaly within the system, and he reminds his readers of his good fortune, having financial stability as well as a healthy support network of friends and family on the outside. This is rarely the case for repeat-offenders and it is important to challenge our own perspectives and our own upbringings before we judge others for their actions which delivered them to the prison institution.
Maddie Noton is a second year MA Italian and English Literature student at the University of Edinburgh.