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Con Game: The Truth About Canada’s Prisons

by Michael Harris

Most people’s vision of life inside a prison comes from popular TV shows like Oz or from such films as Robert Redford’s The Last Castle. But while these works of fiction capture some of the realities of conditions within institutional walls – like the inmate-controlled trade in drugs and alcohol – they never get around to looking at the less glamorous bureaucratic issues of prison life.

Author Michael Harris has no such qualms about investigating the nitty-gritty of the Canadian prison system and its administrative body, the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC). In Con Game, the Nova Scotia investigative journalist – author of previous exposés of the Donald Marshall case, the Mount Cashel school scandal, and undercover RCMP agent and convicted murderer Patrick Kelly – digs deep into the workings of the Canadian prison system.

Harris has done some rigorous research. Almost every page is substantiated with reams of numbers about recidivism rates, the costs to taxpayers of incarcerating prisoners, and the number of Canadians serving time. On the strength of these facts, he paints a picture of life behind bars that’s dominated by premature and poorly planned paroles, guards who are prevented by prisoners-rights legislation from disciplining offenders with the force they think is appropriate, bad food, and seemingly endless violence. Overseeing it all is a massive CSC bureaucracy that finds it more expedient to hide its shortcomings under a mass of paperwork – prison murders, for example, are reported as suicides – rather than confront the problems.

The book’s strongest point is Harris’s determination to present all sides of the Canadian prison story by drawing out the opinions of bureaucrats, prisoners, and guards. Con Game will interest anyone who follows social issues, and those looking for a reform-minded take on the Canadian prison system.