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Con Game: The Truth About Canada's Prisons [Paperback]

Michael Harris
2.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Book Description

March 25 2003
Michael Harris’s book about life inside prison is hard-hitting, hair-raising, and certain to be hugely controversial. Con Game shows us that Canadian penitentiaries are effectively run by their inmates. Behind bars, gangs control the booming drug trade and mete out their own rough justice to inmates who break their rules. Guards sit by, prevented from interfering by a succession of court rulings that have limited their authority. Wardens and bureaucrats at Corrections Canada, intent on keeping their desks clean, allow prison murders to be written off as suicides.

In this sorry state of affairs, too many people in charge of the corrections system are happy to see inmates kept quiet by illegal narcotics; too many are fudging the figures on recidivism; too many are doing nothing to break up the violent social order that prisoners have formed behind the high walls and razor wires that separates “them” from “us.”

Most Canadians know very little about our prisons and have no idea how they function. Michael Harris believes that the top levels of bureaucrats have systematically concealed what is really going on. As a result of his investigations, the truth is now out – and our penal system may never be the same.


From the Hardcover edition.

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Michael Harris's Con Game is a loaded gun aimed at the heart of penal reform in Canada. Subtitled The Truth About Canada's Prisons, it blasts away mercilessly at Correctional Services Canada, the federal agency for prisons. The main message is that federal prisoners are coddled, security is lax, the government cares more about its image than about doing things right, and the bureaucrats at the CSC will never take the blame for problems when they can pass the buck to staff. And there are a multitude of problems: a system awash with drugs and transmittable diseases, high rates of recidivism, and the outrageous cost of keeping prisoners (11.4 per cent higher in 1999-2000). Harris investigates all types of federal prisons: high and low security, old and new, women's, and Native people's. He saves his sharpest barbs for Ole Ingstrup, former commissioner of the CSC, and his liberal policies, which Harris believes have failed miserably.

While the book starts off slowly, and drowns the reader in a confusing sea of correctional programs and services, it eventually hits its stride when Harris recounts a number of anecdotes based on the adventures and misadventures of real prisoners, such as the well-publicized escape of Tyrone Conn from Kingston Pen. Harris argues his case like a determined prosecutor, but makes few reasonable proposals for reform and says almost nothing about the successes and failures of prisons in other countries. What's clear is that Harris believes "tough" has never worked before and "soft" doesn’t work now--suggesting that we need a radical rethinking of the way society deals with convicts and public safety. --Mark Frutkin --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Review

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.
David Colterjohn (Books in Canada)
-- Books in Canada --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

2.7 out of 5 stars
2.7 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting read Dec 18 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Exactly what I expected!! Lived up to what I was looking for in a book about the prison system in Canada
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3.0 out of 5 stars review. Sept. 6 2011
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Interesting read, a little outdated and biased to the ontario region prisons. The author also makes some strong assumptions about the CSC as a whole and those working for the service.
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0 of 6 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Great Book! Oct. 17 2003
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
This book if full of facts and information on Canadian Prisons!!!
It's a good buy for anyone interested in the justice field!
Was this review helpful to you?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 3.0 out of 5 stars  2 reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Con Game Dec 31 2010
By - - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This book was excellent. Harris went through the history of prisons as an institution and within Canada. Most of this book is focused on the changes to the Federal prison system from the late 1980s to the late 1990s under a Danish-born civil servant, Ole Instrup.
Instrup was appointed head of the Correction Services of Canada, and he began to implement a series of changes that resulted in fewer prisoners in jails and more on statutory release in the community. Harris details a number of cases where violent criminals, who have shown no reform or remorse, are released into the community to rape, rob, and murder.
He also instituted changes to the system that give prisoners so many privileges as rights. These changes take the control of the prison out of the hands of the guards and warden and into the hands of the prisoners. This has left the corrections officers demoralized and placed in needlessly dangerous situations.
Harris gives a quote from one convicted murderer that he interviewed:
"If you wnat to run an effective prison system, he haid you have to have enough force to keep dangerous inmates under control. Or, as he told one newspaper reporter, 'When you have people running around doing triple-life sentences and addicted to heroin, you can't have a woman stand behind a barrier and say, 'please stop that.' you have to have some type of mechanism to control people. That's why they are in prison.'"

This was a very engaging read, though some of the examples are going on 10 years old. I would recommend this to anyone in Canada or in a country that looks to Canadian prisons as a model for their own.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Great Book! Oct. 17 2003
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This book if full of facts and information on Canadian Prisons!!!
It's a good buy for anyone interested in the justice field!
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