The Criminal’s Handbook: A Practical Guide to Surviving Arrest and Incarceration in Canada

The Criminal’s Handbook is one of the more interesting examples in a recent flood of prison activist literature decrying Canada’s toughening prison system. The pseudonymous C.W. Michael reveals little about himself save his credentials to write an inside account of prison life — he’s a second- generation career criminal serving a 12-year manslaughter sentence, and has spent much of his life in federal and provincial prisons, including 18 straight months in solitary confinement, where he conceived the idea for the Handbook. Structured chronologically to guide the reader through the legal system, from “Chapter One: Busted to Chapter 12: Back to Life,” Michael peppers his practical advice with detailed descriptions of prison conditions and philosophical ramblings on the nature and history of retributive justice. The Handbook can be pedantic, such as when Michael spends a page discussing the French and old English roots of the word “cop;” and it’s frequently hyperbolic, drawing on examples from  Nazi Germany more than once. But when he stops capital W writing and simply describes his conditions, he’s fascinating. He writes about “the ghost chain,” a fabled prison bus that once transported difficult-to-manage prisoners on an endless loop throughout the country so they wouldn’t bother prison guards, and explains why whistling in prison is taboo—not only because it’s annoying, but also, a whistle was blown to trigger firing squads. He describes what a prison mat feels and smells like, how cells aren’t often cleaned for new tenants and other reasons why diseases travel quickly in prisons. Unfortunately, the Handbook will likely be of little use to a criminal already in the prison system — literature restrictions wouldn’t allow it — but for those curious about a growing, invisible segment of society, Michael’s provided the legwork. Luckily, he’s survived to tell about it. (Ashleigh Gaul)

C.W. Michael, 342 pages, Insomniac Press,, $19.95

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