location: publications / books / Justice Behind the Walls / Sector 5 / Chapter 2 The Special Handling Units: The Corruption of Correctional Principles / The Quebec Special Handling Unit 1984 - 1997

The Quebec Special Handling Unit 1984 - 1997

On successive days in the midsummer of 1997, I entered the deep end of the two parts of Canada's system of justice that have occupied much of my professional life. On the 16th and 17th of June, I was in the Supreme Court of Canada appearing as co-counsel in Delgamuukw v. Attorney General of B.C., the final stage in the landmark Aboriginal title case brought by the Gitksan and Wet'suwet'en Hereditary Chiefs of North West British Columbia. That case had begun in the courts of British Columbia a decade earlier, but it was grounded in the events and challenged the attitudes of earlier centuries as with the history of the penitentiary. On the 18th and 19th of June I entered the gates of Quebec's Special Handling Unit in St. Aines-des-Plaines and spent two days interviewing prisoners regarded as the most dangerous in Canada. The contrast could hardly have been greater. In the Supreme Court building I sat amid the formality of the Court, surrounded with marble, polished hardwood, deep red leather and the rustling of gowns, and listened to the barristerial tone of arguments on the nature and scope of Aboriginal rights. In the Special Handling Unit my surroundings were made up of chain link fences, razor wire, steel doors, guns and the bang of electronic locks being thrown; what I listened to were accounts of the precarious state of prisoners' rights in Canada's harshest prison.

There was one common resource the Supreme Court and the Special Handling Unit shared, although how that resource was deployed epitomises the vast differences between the two institutions. In the Supreme Court there are video cameras which record the oral argument of counsel and the questions posed by the judges. The CPAC public information channel broadcasts certain hearings in order to provide public access to the proceedings of the Supreme Court of Canada. The Special Handling Unit also has video cameras, whose primary purpose is to provide the security staff with information about what is happening in any area of the prison in which prisoners are allowed to congregate. These cameras record proceedings and arguments of quite a different order than those captured by the Supreme Court's and their images are not broadcast for public education.

I was given a tour of the Special Handling Unit by Correctional Supervisor Richard Brown, an officer who has worked at the Special Handling Unit for two years. Mr. Brown frankly conveyed to me during the tour his own ideas on crime and punishment and the role of the Special Handling Unit in that equation. Mr. Brown believed that the Canadian prison system was not making a sufficient contribution to teaching prisoners responsibility, nor developing sufficient incentives for positive change. In his view, prisoners should have to earn every privilege they are given and prison should be made such an experience that no-one would ever want to return. He believed that the Corrections and Conditional Release Act gave prisoners far too many rights and placed far too many restrictions on staff powers, with the result that officers were hampered in their efforts to maintain discipline and enforce order. There should be no programs in the Special Handling Unit and prisoners placed there should face rigid discipline and the expectation of strict compliance with the rules. He would reinforce the authority of the staff by reinstating American-style uniforms for the officers with badges, military ranks, together with a reintroduction of convict clothing and shaven heads. For Mr. Brown, it was time to get back to basics in correctional philosophy and strip prisons of their thin veneer of expensive programs which rarely did any good and which only served to confuse both staff and prisoner alike. There are undoubtedly many members of the public who share Mr. Brown's opinions. Unlike Mr. Brown, most of them would likely find that the Quebec Special Handling Unit more than satisfied their appetite for punishment.

The April 2001 CBC special on Canadian prisons has a segent on the Special Handling Unit, including video footage of the facility and several interviews with prisoners and staff. The CBC has put up a Web site of the program to which readers can link from Justice behind the Walls. To view the footage, ensure that Real Player is installed on your computer, then click here .

The Quebec SHU is the modern fulfilment of Bentham's Panopticon. From a central control station, officers can look down the five radiating wings of the SHU, each one of which is divided into two ranges separated by a concrete wall which prevents any unauthorised interaction between the two ranges. All cell doors and the barriers allowing access to and from the ranges are centrally controlled electronically. Upstairs in the control centre an officer watches a bank of video monitors trained on the four prison yards, the gymnasium, the school area, the common rooms, or any other area of the institution in which prisoners are out of their cells. This upper part of the control centre also leads into a series of corridors which encircle the Special Handling Unit, with strategically placed observation windows through which the staff can survey prisoner movements below and, if necessary, take preventive action through the use of firearms. The pervasiveness of security is unmistakable.

I was then shown one of the cells in the SHU. Prisoners had told me that the cells were much darker than those at Prince Albert and the atmosphere was more oppressive. The physical dimensions and the furnishings of the cell were not that much different from the cells in Prince Albert, but the main impression I received from spending a few minutes in the cell came from the view out of the window. All you can see is a chain link fence and beyond that another chain link and beyond that yet another one; it was like looking into a wall of endless mirrors, all reflecting back the overwhelming reality that this is the end of the road, that the longer you are a prisoner at the SHU, the more difficult it will become to differentiate one day from the next. Interested readers can take a pictorial tour of the Quebec SHU here.

The principal difference between the Prince Albert and Quebec institutions -- so clearly documented in the Annual Reports of the SHU National Committee -- lay in the programs. Although the Quebec SHU has a school area, the physical separation of prisoners from the teachers is more heavily reinforced by the presence of a floor to ceiling chain link fence; the lower eight feet is covered on one side with a Plexiglas barrier and the lower four feet is further protected by a steel plate. Any materials passed between student and teacher is through a number of vertical slots. The impression of being in a caged compound was as unavoidable as it was inimitable to an open learning environment. The prisoner side of the teacher-student divide is further separated by another chain link fence to allow two separate classes to be conducted at the same time. In each area there are only six desks representing the maximum number of prisoners who can be instructed at any one time.

Page 1 of 2

The hearing room of the Supreme Court of Canada