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The Life Sentences of Rik McWhinney

Although people sometimes misquote Winston Churchill as having said that we can judge the level of civilization in a society by the way it treats its prisoners, it was actually Fyodor Dostoyevsky who said: “The degree of civilization in a society is revealed by entering its prisons.” What Churchill, in fact, said is that a society’s attitude to its prisoners, that is, its “criminals,” is the measure of “the stored up strength of a nation.”

If you put stock in what Dostoyevsky believed about prisons being a reflection of a society’s level of civilization, then we have a serious problem here in Canada. For those interested in learning what life is actually like behind bars (at least what it’s like in Canada), you should give The Life Sentences of Rik McWhinney a read. Jason Demers, the book’s editor and an assistant professor at the University of Regina, has done an exceptional job of putting together a book about a Canadian man who spent more than three decades in several prisons across the country. Per the publisher’s description of the book:

“Rik McWhinney spent thirty-four years and four months in Canada’s federal penitentiaries–sixteen of those in solitary confinement. His incarceration began in the 1970s, as a system-wide war was raging over the implementation of penal reforms…The Life Sentences of Rik McWhinney collects his poetry, essays, grievance forms, letters, and interviews to provide readers with insight into the everyday life of incarcerated individuals, amplifying the lives and voices of a demographic that society would rather ignore. McWhinney relays the horrors of solitary confinement and provides a vivid account of the violence and psychological turmoil that he endured while incarcerated.”

While The Life Sentences of Rik McWhinney is not for the faint-of-heart reader, it is nonetheless important reading and will certainly teach you a thing or two about a thing or two. For, as the great Barbara Tuchman once wrote, “Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. Without books, the development of civilization would have been impossible.”


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