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It is tempting to present prison life in black and white terms. In the wake of high-profile and violent crimes, politicians call for longer sentences and a toughening up of regimes to re-inject the rigours of punishment into what is perceived to be the Club Med atmosphere of modern prisons. At the same time, the public is drawn to films such as The Shawshank Redemption and Murder in the First, in which corrupt, violent wardens and guards vie for ascendancy over prisoners struggling against cruel and oppressive conditions. These stereotypes may make for good political rhetoric and even better movies; prison life, however, no less than life on the outside, rarely conforms to extremes.

Looking inside a federal penitentiary is like looking through a kaleidoscope; the images are viewed within a confined space, yet what we see is multifaceted, with colours that continually change and shift. The events I observed and the people I interviewed during my research at Matsqui and Kent, brought many facets of the spectrum into sharp relief. Those events and interviews also shed light on the nature of change and continuity in the Canadian penitentiary.

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