Life Sentences of Rik McWhinney, The

7 July 2023

The Life Sentences of Rik McWhinney
by Rik McWhinney
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Toby A. Welch
$24.95 ISBN 9780889778979

When I review a book, I allot myself two weeks to read it. That way I don’t feel pressure when life throws curve balls my way, like it inevitably does to all of us. Two weeks wasn’t necessary with this book – I devoured it in one day. The content was so engrossing that it sucked me right in. I couldn’t let go until I’d turned the last page. 

In brief, The Life Sentences of Rik McWhinney is about the torment that one man went through while in Canadian penitentiaries. Rik McWhinney spent over 34 years in prisons across the country, 16 of those in solitary confinement. He was granted parole in 2007 and struggled to adjust to a world so drastically different from what he had known for decades. Sadly, McWhinney passed away in January 2019 but we are fortunate to have his experiences live on in The Life Sentences of Rik McWhinney

Most of my knowledge about penitentiary life came from TV and movies. How clueless I was! Being a prisoner in Canada is nothing like what you see on the screen. It is horrific and soul crushing and designed to take the humanity out of those who reside behind the barbed wire topped walls. That is the cruel world McWhinney yanks us so eloquently into.

I won’t get into the gruesome details: me summing it up won’t even begin to give you a clear picture. Suffice to say, the conditions were a reality that few of us can even remotely imagine. Prison life does seem fractionally better now compared to when McWhinney initially went into prison in the early 1970s, but we have a heck of a long way still to go. I am (perhaps delusionally) hopeful that the Canadian prison system will get there one day.

This book is laid out in a beautifully unique way. A thorough introduction by James Demers gives readers a detailed backstory of McWhinney and Demers goes on to edit and organize the entire book. He did a masterful job of it, taking what McWhinney had written and tweaking it into something you’ll find hard to put down. Interspaced with McWhinney’s writing, you’ll find transcripts of conversations between Demers and McWhinney, transcripts of radio interviews and television debates, letters from McWhinney to the solicitor general and various wardens, lists of people remembered on National Prison Justice Day on August 10th, unsent letters from McWhinney to his mother, grievance letters McWhinney wrote about prison conditions, and a lot more interesting stuff. Additionally, McWhinney was a talented poet and you’ll find poems of his scattered throughout the book.

This is not an easy read but it is a necessary one for anyone with even a remote interest in the Canadian penitentiary system.


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