9780002000864 / 0002000865

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About the book:

With nearly 2 million people behind bars in the U.S. and Canada, prisons have become a subject of dark public fascination and controversy, yet the world within is largely alien to most people. Shawn Thompson, a former Canadian penitentiary-beat reporter and now a British Columbia journalism professor, shines a light into that world in Letters from Prison. The book is especially illuminating because Thompson tries to set aside his own biases in order to present prison life through the words of dozens of prisoners in Canada and the U.S. with whom he established letter-writing relationships over several years. "I built the relationships slowly, the way that prisoners do," he writes. Many of the prisoners are great writers and natural storytellers, skills they developed to keep mentally alive. They've got nicknames like Freaky, Scissors, and Comrade Brother Yah Yah. "I knew an individual named Swamp Thing," writes a prisoner called Dangerous Dave. "He had very long, fair hair and would frequently dunk it in water, giving him the appearance of a swamp creature." Thompson writes to them about faculty disputes; he hears back about the latest stabbing. One prisoner thought PhD meant pre-hearing disposition in a trial; another quotes Byron from memory. Thompson learns how one con escaped by sea using the coffin from a theatre production of Dracula as a boat. He also gets lessons on survival: say no to everyone, take nothing, hold nothing, never trust anyone, even yourself. "You must develop a good convict stride," one prisoner advises. You need to walk like you grew up on the meanest street in the world and be ready to prove it. Be the fish or the fish food." --Alex Roslin

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