The Experiences of Offenders and Prison Staffers

The Experiences of Offenders and Prison Staffers

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The Experiences of Offenders and Prison Staffers

Canada’s justice system can be considered one of the best in the world. The country reports less crime and severity of offences compared to other developed nations. However, an outsider can be forgiven for thinking that the Canadian criminal justice system does not have unique challenges. Throughout writing responses in class, we have learned that the history of Canada’s criminal justice system is characterized by wide racial, sexist, and ethnic prejudice. The functions of law enforcement seem to maintain social order but also to safeguard the interests of the status quo at the expense of minorities. No other class reading paints a better picture of this social imbalance and injustice than Jack Black’s ‘You Cannot Win’. While other readings focus on inmate experiences from the inside, Jack Black looks at the causality of structural violence, drugs, and poverty in Canadian prisons and their impact on prisoner health and welfare.

The problem with the Canadian criminal justice system does not begin and end with the prisons. Instead, the challenges begin much before. Jack’s autobiography provides an insider’s perspective of the justice system, including how a person finds himself in prison. The book follows the character since he began being attracted to crime at the age of 14 (Black, 2000). At the time, America was rampant with drug and alcohol abuse, fugitives, and an emphasis on punitive justice (Black, 2000). The author’s narration of his childhood reflects class readings on how social alienation and transgression are linked to crime in adulthood. The theoretical connection is another reason behind the suitability of Jack’s book. Ricciardelli (2013) and Yates (1993) focus on lived experiences while in prison without offering any linkages. The two authors prioritize what it takes to survive while incarcerated while Jack Black shows survival is done from the outside. Surviving the prison system means avoiding it, which includes having a comprehensive understanding of how one’s background influences their chances of being locked up.

Jack’s book reveals that reforming the criminal justice system begins with addressing much wider socioeconomic challenges outside the prison walls. The poor, primarily minority ethnicities, were and are still more vulnerable to incarceration due to their social status. Like Jack, the poor are more prone to gambling, scamming, and other risk-taking behaviours. The author talks about a letter from Rubin Carter to Sammy Davis, in which the inmate describes his feelings towards his life sentence. According to the prisoner, he was serving life simply because he was coloured (Black, 2000). Whites are not disproportionally impacted because of their background. Ricciardelli (2013) and Yates (1993) do not provide the insight that reforming the prison system should not prioritize lived experiences inside prison walls but rather lived experiences in American neighbourhoods. The book is very articulate in conveying the fact that society must address the American social structure that creates favourable conditions for the exploitation of minorities.  

The Canadian government can only ensure reduced crime rates and social justice by addressing socioeconomic challenges prevalent in its society. Jack Black identifies that his background and social status were primed to land him in prison. The author never falls into sentimentality in his book. Instead, he clearly presents the image that a life of crime does not offer any life satisfaction. Some people are simply forced into it. People are the product of their surroundings, which implies preventive measures should consider the distinct social determinants of justice for each region. Moreover, the measures should include non-intrusive programs. Putting innocent men or ones guilty of small crimes into the larger prison system is more likely to turn them into harder criminals. Jack Black’s book is impressive and inspiring given how long ago the author served time in prison. The autobiography can be applied as a scholarly resource reinforcing the importance of alternative and restorative justice. Availability of such options would have prevented Jack from suffering a hard life in prison or even his subsequent suicide.


Black, Jack. (2000). You can’t win [2nd Ed]. AK Press.

Ricciardelli, R. (2013). Surviving incarcerations: Inside Canadian prisons. Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 21-26.

Yates, J. M. (1993). Line screw: my twelve riotous years working behind bars in some of Canada’s toughest jails. McClelland & Stewart, 25-45. 

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