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The dehumanizing power of institutions

Reviews

Writing prescriptively about incarceration is to wrestle with abstractions. Contained in each statistic – suicides, recidivism, inmates per cell – is a thousand voices, separate cockpits of despair or detachment or energy or boredom. Authors who themselves have spent years at Her Majesty’s pleasure, and their minders, can work from a place of experiential truth, but are themselves checked by anecdotal limitation.

Garry Garrison perceives this tension, but grapples with it unevenly in Human on the Inside. Garrison was the longtime coordinator of a visitation program serving inmates at Alberta’s federal penitentiaries. Before this he edited the Alberta Hansard – and the best parts of this book are chapters that read like short conversational sips, meditations on small commonalities shared by the author and those he met inside.

Elsewhere the writing feels directionless: long and meandering chapters vent about the prison drug scanner and the author’s “wrongful conviction” for a speeding ticket, and detract from the book’s emotional and political imperative. Garrison touches on the dehumanizing effects of the Harper Government’s “tough on crime” reforms on prisoners and corrections staff alike, but only briefly. The valuable glimpses here are at once both personal and mundane, drawing parallels between the drudgery of suburban, workaday life and the grinding prison routine – a window into what the author terms “the dehumanizing power of institutions”.

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