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The Conditions of Solitary Confinement

The description of the conditions of solitary confinement that follows is taken primarily from the plaintiffs' evidence given at trial, evidence that was accepted as credible by the trial judge.22 It has been supplemented by my extensive interviews and correspondence with the plaintiffs.

Prisoners confined in administrative segregation in the British Columbia Penitentiary were held in a special unit which at the time of the McCann Trial was officially called the special correctional unit. Subsequently the unit became the 'super-maximum-security unit.' Because of its location atop one of the cell blocks it was known as 'the penthouse.' The unit was built in 1963 following a riot in the previous year, and consisted of four ranges of cells radiating in an H pattern from a small enclosed central courtyard. There were eleven cells in each range. One of the ranges was usually reserved for prisoners sentenced to punitive dissociation following a conviction in Warden's Court for a disciplinary offence. Another tier was designated as the psychiatric tier, and a third was reserved for protective-custody cases. While the protective cases were always kept separate, the lines of demarcation between the other three tiers were not strictly observed.23

The cells measured 11 feet by 6½ feet and consisted of three solid concrete walls and a solid steel door with a five-inch-square window which could only be opened from outside the cell. Inside the cell there was no proper bed. The prisoner slept on a cement slab four inches off the floor; the slab was covered by a sheet of plywood upon which was laid a four-inch-thick foam pad. Prisoners were provided with blankets, sheets, and a foam-rubber pillow. About two feet from the end of the sleeping platform against the back wall was a combination toilet and wash-basin. An institutional rule required that the prisoner sleep with his head away from the door and next to the toilet bowl to facilitate inspection of the prisoners by the guards. Failure to comply with this rule would result in guards throwing water on the bedding or kicking the cell door. There were no other furnishings in the cell. One of the expert witnesses described the physical space as 'one step above a strip cell... a concrete vault in which people are buried.'24

The cell was illuminated by a light that burned twenty-four hours a day. The hundred-watt bulb was dimmed to twenty-five watts at night. Andy Bruce described it as being somewhat like the high and low beams of a car. The light was too bright to permit comfortable sleep and too dim to provide adequate illumination. Bruce told the court, 'You never get used to the light.'25 Walter Dudoward testified that because of the continuous light, 'time didn't exist up there.'26 The ventilation to the cells was provided by a vent placed high in the back wall. The prisoners testified that it was inadequate; in winter the cells were cold and in summer they were hot and humid. The space under the steel door admitted draughts, which caused the prisoners discomfort since they slept within six inches of thefloor. Prisoners were denied all but the most limited personal effects; they were permitted to keep only those letters, books, and magazines that could be contained in one cardboard box. Canteen items were also restricted; prisoners were not allowed to have any items in metal or glass containers. Prisoners could not go to the library. Their privileges were limited to choosing from a sparse collection of paperbacks that were brought into the unit. Prisoners only had cold water in their cells. Twice a week they were given a cup of what was supposed to be hot water for shaving, but which, they testified, was usually lukewarm. They were not permitted to have their own razors, and one razor was shared among all the prisoners on the tier. This, they testified, resulted in the creation or aggravation of skin problems and allergic reactions.

Prisoners were confined in their concrete vaults for 23½ hours a day. They were allowed out of their cells briefly to pick up their meals from the tray at the entrance to the tier and for exercise. That exercise was not in the open air. It was limited to walking up and down the seventy-five-foot corridor in front of their cells. Exercise was taken under the continual supervision of an armed guard who patrolled on the elevated catwalk which ran the whole length of the tier and which was screened from the corridor by a wire-mesh fence. For the rest of the day prisoners were locked up in their cells. They had no opportunity to work; no hobby activities were deemed suitable by security for the special correctional; unit; no television programs, no movies, no sports, and no calisthenics were permitted. Prisoners did have a radio panel, although its reception was restricted to two channels. Andy Bruce gave evidence that when he was in one of the observation cells of the unit (reserved for psychiatric cases) the radio was manipulated by the guards in the central control area and was left on for hours with nothing but static; or it was turned to the international band so that the only programs received were in languages foreign to the prisoners.

Prisoners in the unit were subject to a more restrictive visiting regime than the rest of the population. Prisoners spoke to visitors through a screen and conversations were monitored by the staff. No open visits were allowed, and prisoners never had an opportunity for personal contact with their families or for uncensored conversation with their visitors. Standard procedure governing the movement of prisoners from the unit to the visiting area decreed that they be handcuffed to a restraining belt around the waist and that leg-irons be placed on them. Upon returning from the visit, prisoners were subjected to skin-frisks, even though they may never have left the sight of the escorting officer or had any physical contact with their visitors.

The plaintiffs testified that they had great difficulty in obtaining profesional medical attention. In Donald Oag's case, his detention in solitary confinement in Kingston Penitentiary had been a major contributing cause of his medical problem. The problem was aggravated by the inadequate treatment Oag received in solitary when he was transferred to the British Columbia Penitentiary. Oag testified that after the riot at Kingston Penitentiary in 1971 during which two prisoners were killed, he and other prisoners were convicted of manslaughter.27 Immediately following the riot Oag and the other prisoners were taken to Millhaven. On arrival there, 'we were made to run a gauntlet of prison guards armed with baseball bats who beat on us as we passed through them. All of us were chained hand and feet and could do little to protect ourselves.'28 Oag was placed in dissociation in Millhaven under section 2.30(1)(a) and remained there almost continuously until July 1972.

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You can view photos of the Penthouse by going to the gallery on this site and selecting BC Penitentiary. see http://justicebehindthewalls.net/04_gallery_01_01.html