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Clark’s book discusses an infamous prisoner under his watch at Kingston Penitentiary.Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press

Kids play cops and robbers. They imagine driving firetrucks. They pretend to shoot like soldiers using any crooked stick or jagged rock at hand.

In my extensive, and some might say ongoing, experience as a child, however, I have yet to witness a child play jail guard. Kids reflect the values of adults around them and the correctional system simply doesn't register. Robert Clark's memoir, Down Inside, which chronicles three decades of working in the federal prison service, shows how this public ignorance can lead to public negligence.

It's a rare and important perspective – a correctional-system insider offering an honest and damning take on the correctional system – that can only intensify pressure on the federal government to follow through on as-yet-unrealized election pledges to reform the country's prisons.

Back in 1978, Clark just wanted to be a physical-education teacher. But Queen's University wouldn't grant him an education degree without a requisite number of volunteer hours. Millhaven Institution, just outside Kingston, was happy to oblige. As with most people setting foot inside the barbed-wire fence of a penitentiary for the first time, he was filled with a peculiar combination of fear and fascination. In the gym, where he was to work as a recreation assistant, he shook hands with Brutus, Snake and Hobo, dangerous men all, who upended his lurid expectations of convicts by fetching him coffee and asking about his life. "My experience on that first day made a powerful impression on me," he writes. "I felt like I was being accepted into a rare and unique group of men, like I was part of something that most people could never imagine in their entire lifetime. Most of all, I believed I had something good to offer the prisoners here; and the positive reaction of these very rugged characters stoked my enthusiasm."

The enthusiasm wouldn't last.

When teaching didn't pan out, he returned to prison, this time in a paid capacity, and slowly climbed the ranks to deputy warden. Over that time, he collected tales of daring escapes, infamous convicts, wicked guards and institutional neglect. In just his second year on the job, a young Joyceville Institution inmate he knew was stabbed to death while lifting weights.

The book devotes a whole chapter to Tyrone Conn, a conniving young robber who convinced Clark he was a prime candidate for home visits, only to escape during a trip to his mother's house. Later, when both men were stationed at Kingston Penitentiary, Clark argued against transferring Conn to a lower-security prison. It would become a controversial decision. Denied a legal escape from Kingston Pen, Conn opted for an illicit one, becoming the first person in 40 years to break out of the ancient maximum-security facility. When police surrounded his Toronto basement apartment two weeks later, Conn shot himself in the chest. The escape and death became the subject of a book by CBC journalist Linden MacIntyre and much internal hand-wringing at Correctional Service Canada. Despite it all, Clark still feels he made the right call.

There's another story about a meeting with Paul Bernardo that shook Clark to his core. He had always believed in treating inmates humanely and approaching the job with "detached compassion." But after meeting Bernardo in person and pondering the man's crimes, "the hypocrisy of my views struck me," and his compassion hardened into something closer to contempt.

This crisis of conscience is the book's central theme. It's also a personal manifestation of the tension that lies at the heart of corrections in this country. How should we treat those guilty of barbarism? What is the purpose of prison? Rehabilitation, retribution or something in between?

When Clark started working in prisons in the late 1970s, the rehabilitative approach that had prevailed since the 1950s in Canada was beginning to erode. A series of Canadian reports, along with research from people such as Robert Martinson in the United States, created a body of evidence suggesting that prisoner-rehabilitation programs were an out-and-out failure – the so-called "nothing works" doctrine. These studies laid the foundation for a gradual shift toward a more punitive model accelerated under the Harper Conservatives.

Clark acknowledges the damage done during this ideological move. He refers to solitary confinement as "cruel and unusual punishment" and calls out former colleagues for abusing prisoners and then retreating behind a "blue wall" of collegial silence.

There are legislated safeguards in place to protect inmate rights, but Clark says they are routinely overlooked. For example, inmates in solitary confinement are supposed to have their ongoing isolation reviewed by a team of prison staff at regular intervals. Clark chaired hundreds of these review meetings over his career and writes, "I know these processes typically amount to little more than a rubber stamp."

Such words will win few friends among Correctional Service brass, who have battled feverishly against political interference and sidestepped persistent calls for more independent oversight within prison operations. They thrive in opacity, in keeping prisons locked away, out of public sight, out of public mind.

There is a Dostoyevsky quote that one hears at correctional conferences with nauseating regularity: "The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons." It's ubiquitous because it's good. But we can't judge if we can't enter. Wardens interested in their own job security come up with any flimsy excuse they can to keep writers away. Down Inside ushers us within and invites us to judge. Nobody comes out unscathed.

Globe and Mail reporter Patrick White recently won a National Newspaper Award for his coverage of Canada's prison system.

At a B.C. federal prison, private family visits take place in a house-like unit with a yard, a barbecue, and a room of children's toys. Mission Institution's warden says conjugal visits help maintain "family relationships" for convicts.

The Canadian Press

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