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  • Hard Times: Reforming the Penitentiary in Nineteenth-Century Canada by Ted McCoy
  • Rainer Baehre
Hard Times: Reforming the Penitentiary in Nineteenth-Century Canada. Ted McCoy. Edmonton: Athabaska University Press, 2012. Pp. 339, $29.95

The history of the Canadian penitentiary system transcends institutional architecture and internal regimen to encompass a broad range of social and cultural issues that are reflected in criminal justice and corrections. As McCoy ably argues, these issues continue to resonate in Canada today, and he provides an insightful and detailed analysis of their nineteenth-century roots. Emerging in the wake of colonial workhouses, Bridewells, local jails, and lock-ups, within a tradition of brutal, corporal, and public punishments based primarily on deterrence and retribution, the penitentiary was reinvented in the early nineteenth century. Reform efforts were initiated primarily by the Americans, whose prison experiments garnered international attention, including from British North America. Based upon Enlightenment, humanitarian, and religious thinking and practices, the discourse of prison reformers, while never monolithic, upheld a more rational, just, and humane alternative to older forms of retributive punishment and convict transportation. Instead, there emerged a new emphasis on “secondary punishment”: disciplining, rehabilitating, and morally improving criminals in a broad effort to counter a perceived growing crime problem, maintain social order, and depoliticize what Max Weber termed the state’s legal use of physical violence.

In this ground-breaking study, McCoy examines the history of the Canadian penitentiary system in the mid- to late Victorian era, beginning with the Kingston Penitentiary in the 1830s. As McCoy demonstrates, the Kingston Penitentiary was in practice by mid-century not an institution of reform but one of insolvency, corruption, violence, and other problems, as graphically detailed in the Brown [End Page 609] Commission of 1850. Similar issues were also evident at four other early Canadian institutions: Saint-Vincent-de-Paul in Laval; Manitoba Penitentiary, first at Fort Garry, later at Stony Mountain; British Columbia Penitentiary in New Westminster; and Dorchester Penitentiary in New Brunswick. In making his arguments about their comparative failure to reform criminals and counter criminality, the author is less concerned with the ideas and models that shaped these institutions than with their internal practices, and how the contradictions between theory and practice – the efforts to bring about penitentiary reform – reflected broader ideological contexts and contemporary Canadian “social values.” In particular, the author examines in separate chapters how the nineteenth-century discourse on labour, reform, criminality, prison life, medicine, and appropriateness of punishment played out and contributed to the impasse of penitentiary reform.

Central to McCoy’s analysis, and introduced in the first chapter, is the role played by political economy in shaping punishment, especially the implementation of prison labour as integral to criminal punishment and reform. Making prisoners work was part of an international phenomenon associated with the perceived need to inculcate in the inmate the discipline necessary to adjust upon release to a growing industrial workplace and to make criminals self-supporting and law-abiding. The author explores how this emphasis on prison labour emerged and how it became integrated into calls for reforming criminal punishment. McCoy also examines how labour ideology was put into practice in British North America, including who supported, opposed, and enforced it, as well as how this ideology was later reformed following Confederation. In his second chapter, McCoy pursues “the new spirit of reform” and its limitations, highlighting how the difficulties of transforming the criminal through penitentiary labour or changes in penitentiary governance were met head-on by rigid, institutional structures and regimens. Despite an ongoing recognition of the penitentiary system’s continuing shortcomings, prison wardens and penal experts in nearly every decade after 1850 called for reforms, such as the Crofton system. The Crofton system called for categorizing prisoners according to how close they were to leaving prison in order to facilitate their re-entry into society, but a host of obstacles – public attitudes, institutional inertia, limited funding, and recidivism – left even reform-minded wardens frustrated with their inability to effect change. While much of this history can be found in more specialized studies of the history of the penitentiary, these chapters provide a thoughtful context and broad synthesis of available primary and...


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pp. 609-612
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