A Bit of a Stretch : The Diaries of a Prisoner by Chris Atkins.
There has been a good deal of excellent writing, in the last few years, about jail and African -American men.

I'm thinking especially of ''Solitary,'' Albert Woodfox's amazing memoir about four decades spent in solitary confinement at Angola prison in Louisiana, and ''Felon,'' Reginald Dwayne Betts's book of poems.

Chris Atkin's book, ''A Bit of a Stretch : The Diaries of a Prisoner,'' is a different, less harrowing sort of volume. But it's a good one.

He's a sensitive observer, sober but alert to wincing varieties of humour. He's not one of those people who, in T.S. Elliot's phrase, ''had the experience but missed the meaning.''

The author slowly builds a case against the gross ineptitude of Wandsworth and of England's prison system.

''If Wandsworth was a hospital, patients would be discharged with far more diseases than when they arrived,'' he writes. ''If it was school, pupils would graduate knowing less than when they enrolled.''

He witnesses a great deal of violence. He comes to understand how the body's orifices can be used to smuggle many things into a prison. He learns that a case of tuna is the basic unit of prison currency.

Why do prisoners detest pedophiles with such avidity? Everyone, Atkins writes, wants to feel there is someone down the social ladder.

It matters, in prison, who your room-mate is. It matters which wing of the prison you are in. Some are terrifying..

Atkins slowly works his way up to better cells and sane roommates. He becomes close to several of them, and he's shocked to discover, later, the true impact of their crimes. Prison underlines a truism : Good people can do bad things.

There's a lockdown, and then there's lockdown. Chris Atkins, a successful English filmmaker, got involved in a tax-dodging scheme to finance a documentary.

He was sentenced to five years in prison, and was sent to a Wandsworth - one of the largest, oldest and unruliest prisons in Britain. If he stood on the dismal toilet in his cell, he would sometimes see the London skyline.

Atkins isn't here to ask forgiveness. He's guilty, he admits, even if he was a junior partner in a stratagem he dimly understood. Nor does he ask for special sympathy. He's aware that his prison experience was, by comparison with others , not especially dire. He had the support of family and friends.

''It also helped,'' he writes ''that I was educated, white, middle class, relatively affluent and I didn't have a mental illness

''A Bit of a Stretch'' explores how public perceptions of prison life are wildly different from the reality, in the same way that Paul Fussell's ''The Great War and Modern Memory'' is about how romantic public ideas of war differed from the carnage on the ground.

Atkins becomes deeply cynical. He realizes that nothing, absolutely nothing, politicians, or criminal justice leaders say in public is anything close to what inmates experience.

He spends nine months at Wandsworth before he is transferred to a minimum-security prison to serve the remainder of this time.

His diary ends with his transfer. He writes that prison made him a better person; he's less of a judgmental soul. ''A Bit of a Stretch'' may not be a major book, but it's soulful indeed.

The World Students Society thanks author Dwight Garner.


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