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5. The Penitentiaries’ Response to the McCann Case: Canada’s New Prisons of Isolation


A week before Mr Justice Heald handed down his decision in McCann, the Study Group on Dissociation presented its report (the Vantour Report) to the commissioner of penitentiaries. The undertaking of a special study of the use of segregation had been recommended by the correctional investigator, Inger Hansen, in her annual report for 1973-4, although there is little doubt that the timing of its establishment was precipitated by the beginning of the McCann trial in February 1975. As I have previously indicated, the findings of the study group on the conditions and effects of segregation were fully congruent with the evidence presented at the McCann trial.

Prolonged segregation under these conditions lacks any indication of administrative purpose other than to isolate inmates considered to be disruptive to the institutional order. Although we recognize the limitations on social sciences in effecting change in inmates, we must still acknowledge the lack of substantive rehabilitative or therapeutic value in the concept of segregation. It must be recognized that almost all of these inmates would eventually be released from prison. This being the case, segregation as it presently exists is not practical. It further enhances the inmate’s antisocial attitude and, in general, constitutes a self-fulfilling prophecy.1

The study group also addressed the general issue of the continuing need for segregation and made specific recommendations on facilities for segregated prisoners and the process of segregation. As the starting-point of its analysis, the study group articulated a rationale for segregation within the context of its understanding of the distinctive nature of the prison society.

The Study Group is aware of the growing interest in inmate rights and the concern that inmates are segregated without charges. Many of the persons interviewed expressed the opinion that this preventive aspect of penitentiary administration would not be tolerated should it occur in the community. This argument equates penitentiary life with life in the free community. We do not consider this to be the case ...The etiology of crime and the workings of the legal system operate selectively to the end that a high proportion of prisoners are emotionally and attitudinally maladjusted. A minority is only a step away from active rebellion.

According to Cloward, the series of status degradation ceremonies that occur for offenders throughout the criminal justice system have the following effect: ‘Prisoners are less likely to impute legitimacy to the bases of social control in the prison. That is typical of persons in other spheres of society. Having been denounced, degraded, segregated, and confined, many renounce the legitimacy of the invidious definitions to which they are subject, and thus further pressure towards deviance is created. This socially induced trait towards deviance, above all else, sets the stage for a major problem of social control in the prison.’

The result is that ‘The acute sense of status degradation that prisoners experience generates powerful pressures to evolve means of restoring status. Principal among them are mechanisms that emerge in an inmate culture-a system of social relationships governed by norms that are largely at odds with those espoused by the officials and the conventional society.’

Inmates, then, seek the prestige that was not accorded them in a free society. Cloward argues, however, that since so many inmates are deprived, the prestige is in short supply, and ‘consequently, these disenchanted individuals are forced into bitterly competitive relationships ...thus is it hardly surprising to find that the upper echelons of the inmate world come to be occupied by those whose past behaviour best symbolizes that which society rejects and who have most fully’ repudiated tht institutional norms. These are the inmates who refuse or are unable to lower their aspirations and accept their degraded position. Disillusioned and frustrated, they seek means of escaping degradation.’

It is these prisoners who represent major problems for the administration. Generally, the result is a competitive, exploitative and sometimes violent society. Sykes and Messinger note that an additional significant feature of an inmate’s social environment is simply ‘the presence of other imprisoned criminals ...who are the inmate’s constant companions ...crowded into a small area with men who have long records of physical assaults, thievery, and so on (and who may be expected to continue in the path of deviant social behaviour in the future) the inmate is deprived of the sense of security that we more or less take for granted in the free community.2

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