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Con Game: The Truth About Canada's Prisons

by Michael Harris
ISBN: 0771039611


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A Review of: Con Game: The Truth about Canada∆s Prisons
by David Colterjohn

When John Howard was appointed High Sheriff of Bedfordshire in 1773, no one expected him to take his job too seriously. The appointment was meant as a political sinecure, but since the title included responsibility for the Bedford jail, Howard decided that he ought to inspect the premises. He was so appalled at what he saw that he traveled all over the country on a hopeless quest, seeking a better example for the local jailer to follow. The result was a landmark book, The State of Prisons in England and Wales. First published in 1777, the book launched a movement for prison reform that has continued up to the present day.
In Con Game, The Truth about Canada's Prisons, award-winning author Michael Harris argues that all this damn progress has gone too far. In the last 20 or 30 years, a series of well-intentioned but ultimately naive laws and court decisions have worked together with philosophically misguided internal policies to create a monster. According to Harris, the Correctional Service of Canada and its junior partner the National Parole Board (NPB) have morphed into a secretive, anti-democratic bureaucracy that is indirectly responsible for the murders of hundreds of innocent Canadians.
Most people are at least dimly aware of the fact that very few Canadian offenders serve out their full sentences, but they probably don't know how very little time some of them spend behind bars. According to Harris, the average inmate gets full parole after serving only 39.8 percent of their sentence. Under the new Accelerated Parole Review, non-violent, first time offenders are released after serving a mere one-sixth of their sentences. Unless they have been classified as "dangerous offenders" or are serving a life sentence, even the most recalcitrant inmates are released when they reach their "statutory release" date, which means they have been incarcerated for only two-thirds of their actual sentence. Turned out unreformed on society, as many as 43 percent of federal prisoners reoffend.
In order to explain this failure, Harris takes his readers on an inside tour of Canada's penal system. What emerges is a series of prison portraits that range from comically cushy to downright deadly. While some inmates have their own room keys and work out on state-of-the-art exercise equipment, others (51 in ten years) are murdered in cold blood. Despite the Correctional Service's "zero-tolerance" policy, drug and alcohol abuse have reached epidemic proportions and convicted drug traffickers conduct their business inside with impunity.
As Harris describes it, the average prison guards' job is an unmitigated nightmare. Guards work short-staffed and mostly unarmed. They are verbally abused on a daily basis and routinely showered with urine and feces. Interacting with some of Canada's most unsavory citizens, correctional officers have to deal with fires, riots, and escapes with one eye constantly turned to a set of labyrinthine regulations all designed to protect the prisoners' rights.
Perhaps the most shocking example occurs midway through the book, when Harris describes an incident when an inmate repeatedly raped a Kingston Penitentiary office worker. The Emergency Response Team stood outside the office for hours, helplessly watching the assaults while they waited for negotiations with the "inmates committee" to be resolved. A multitude of similar examples lead Harris to conclude that it is the inmates, not the staff, who are really in control of Canada's federal prisons.
Harris places much of the blame for this state of affairs on Ole Ingstrup, a two-time Commissioner of the Correctional Service of Canada, who retired from the service in 2000. In Harris's view, Ingstrup, by blindly embracing an unworkable philosophy of "restorative justice", has had an inordinate influence over Canadian correctional policy. According to Harris, "It is fashionable in federal government social policy circles to make excuses for criminal behavior. Society, not the individual, is somehow to blame for an offender's criminal acts. Touched by a bureaucratic magic wand, perpetrators are transformed from criminals into victims who are then entitled to non-judgmental support from everyone, including their victims." He thinks this isn't just getting things backwards-it's pushing the cart down a steep slope without even bothering to attach the horse.
In Con Game, Harris breaks all the Politically Correct' rules. A pugnacious and passionate writer, he shows us his cards up front when he uses terms like "Canada's criminal class" or describes someone he disagrees with as an "anti-capital punishment ideologue." His analysis and recommendations are designed to provoke controversy and will likely be used to anchor debate by those on the political right.
But readers with more liberal leanings need not despair: There are times when the author trips over his own anger and frustration. Much of his argument appeals to one of the worst features of human nature-the innate self-righteousness that those who obey the law feel towards those who do not.
Harris may loathe the construct of the criminal as "victim of society," but he provides his ideological opponents with a number of passages that actually support this thesis. For example, he notes that most of Canada's felons come from dysfunctional, abusive families, are undereducated, have unstable employment histories and engage in serious substance abuse. Multiply these problems sevenfold and you get a pretty accurate picture of the incarceration rates among Canada's aboriginal peoples. Surely society needs to assume a little responsibility here too.
On top of this, Harris relies far too heavily on prison guards' testimony, spending far too little of his ink on actual prison inmates. Besides, even if 43 percent of Canadian offenders end up back in jail, it must be obvious that 57 percent of them do not. In a book that spans over 350 pages of highly charged polemical argument, Harris might have devoted at least a chapter or two to those offenders for whom the "restorative" model seems to have worked.
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