Posthumous collection of writing, interviews an indictment of prison system

Editor hopes collection will serve to humanize ‘people who tend to be reduced to a label’

Rik McWhinney’s over 34 years of incarceration in Canada’s federal penitentiary system – 16 of which were in solitary confinement – began in the 1970s. During the early years of his imprisonment, he was frequently subjected to segregation and medical torture. Eventually, McWhinney turned to writing, and his poetry, essays, grievance forms, and letters both documented and worked to combat the conditions of his confinement.

McWhinney died in 2019 in Regina, Saskatchewan, at the age of 67. The Life Sentences of Rik McWhinney, a collection of his writing and interviews edited by Jason Demers, provides an indictment of the prison system as a place of violence and psychological turmoil rather than rehabilitation and reform.

Demers, an assistant professor in the Department of English at the University of Regina, is well situated to edit this collection. “I met Rik shortly after moving to Regina in 2012. We quickly learned that we shared a love of literature, and of certain authors – Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, George Jackson, Jean Genet,” he says.

McWhinney shared his poetry with Demers, and asked him to help get it published.

McWhinney was not only a poet, but also an articulate and compelling public speaker, talking openly about his experiences of incarceration. “People were always asking him when he was going to publish a book about his life,” says Demers. The two men spent the next several years discussing how McWhinney might publish his poetry while at the same time giving readers a broader sense of where his poetry came from.

After McWhinney’s death due to undiagnosed lung cancer, Demers saw the project through to publication, in the hope that McWhinney’s eloquent words will make an impact on the system that consumed so much of his life.

“At the very least,” Demers says, “I hope this book helps to humanize people who tend to be reduced to a label.”

Jason Demers
Jason Demers

While the book tells one man’s story, Demers emphasizes that McWhinney’s experiences are representative of the experiences of many marginalized people.

“So many of the people Rik was incarcerated with as a child ended up in the federal penitentiary system,” he says. “These are kids that knew nothing but violence and abuse. We think that prisons are there to cage monsters, when we should be thinking about how we might better invest in our communities because most of the people who end up in prison – victimizing people in the process – are people who have slipped through sizable cracks.”

McWhinney’s words will outlive him, and possibly do more good in the world than they did him in life.

Rik McWhinney
Rik McWhinney

“While I wouldn’t say that writing was healing for Rik, it was certainly a way for him to productively channel his frustration and despair,” Demers says.

“Incarceration means that you have very little control over your life – Rik was routinely subjected to involuntary transfer and he was perpetually denied medical care for chronic conditions that accumulated over the years – but Rik had a command of the English language.

“While his words had very little power while he was incarcerated, the hope is that their impact will be more profound now that they’ve been released.”