location: publications / books / Prisoners of Isolation: Solitary Confinement in Canada / Chapter 5 The Penitentiaries’ Response to the McCann Case: Canada’s New Prisons of Isolation / The Winds of Change or the Window of Contempt?

From the prisoners’ perspective there were no improvements in the SCU regime. Complaints about hygienic facilities and medical care continued. It was deemed a security risk to provide prisoners with regular tooth- brushes, and the ones issued to them were broken off to 1 ˝ inches of handle and one inch of brush. The result was that prisoners could do little more than rub their teeth. As one prisoner pointed out, ‘to do this for “security” reasons is ridiculous. There are ten more things in this cell that would make better weapons than a toothbrush-for that matter, the plastic barrel on this pen is six inches long.’19

Interviews with the prison doctor and psychiatrist were held in the central control area with guards standing within earshot; there was no privacy. Several prisoners informed me that for this reason they did not bother to see the doctor even though they needed to do so. Several hobbies were for the first time made available for prisoners in solitary: art, petit point, and beadcraft. In a letter Andy Bruce explained why the policy did not result in any change: ‘No one does them, because no one is willing to sign the permit that goes along with it. Because of the prevailing attitude and from past experience I think it safe to assume what would happen if I were to put a permit on my wall that says “I agree that all tools, materials and completed hobbycraft are subject to search at any time and that I will have no claim for damages arising from such official action.” It presupposes damage, and the effect of that isn’t worth the hobby. ‘20

As a member of the Citizen’s Advisory Committee at the British Columbia Penitentiary I interviewed prisoners in administrative segregation throughout 1976. I continued to hear prisoners protest at being placed in segregation for investigation of alleged infractions; when these investigations were completed and no charges were laid, these prisoners were still kept in segregation. There continued to be inexplicable inconsistencies in the practice of keeping prisoners in segregation pending disposition of outside criminal charges; prisoners sentenced to punitive dissociation at a disciplinary hearing continued to be kept in administrative dissociation on the expiry of their sentences; and allegations of beatings and harass- ment by guards who had been named in the McCann trial continued.

The extent of any real change in the practice of carceral power at the British Columbia Penitentiary in the year following Mr Justice Heald’s declaratory judgment can best be seen from an incident that occurred on Christmas Eve 1976. At the end of September there had been a major disturbance at the British Columbia Penitentiary (and also at Millhaven and Laval) which resulted in extensive destruction of the east wing cell block. After the disturbance prisoners were moved into the prison auditorium, the only space available to hold them while arrangements were made to transfer them to other institutions. In November, as a result of an explosion and fire in the auditorium, some prisoners were moved into the old east wing on the ground floor. The lighting, heating, and plumbing in those cells had been totally destroyed. Plastic sheeting was placed over the shattered windows on the outside walls and temporary heating and lighting was installed. By Christmas Eve only a handful of prisoners remained in the east wing. Jack McCann was one of them. I visited the east wing on Christmas Eve and spoke with as many prisoners as I could, including McCann, about the conditions. The little light that existed outside had difficulty penetrating into the wing because of the heavy plastic on the walls. The naked light bulbs suspended from the ceiling offered little illumination. The cells were in virtual darkness. The attitudes of the prisoners ranged from open hostility to utter despair.

At this point the reader may interject that conditions in the east wing were the result of the prisoners’ own destructive activity, and they could hardly complain about having to live temporarily with the implications of this destruction. Apart from the fact that a number of these prisoners, including Jack McCann, had not been living in the east wing at the time of the disturbance, my point is not to equate the conditions under which prisoners were being held there with conditions still prevailing in administrative segregation; rather, I wish to examine the attitude of the keeper toward the kept. On Christmas Eve 1976 Jack McCann informed me that just prior to my visit a prison guard had placed some razor blades on the ledge of one of the cell doors. As he left the range he shouted to the prisoners, ‘have a Merry Christmas and a slashing New Year.’ I found out later that a number of prisoners had in fact slashed themselves that evening. The parliamentary subcommittee appointed to investigate the penitentiary system in the wake of the riots at the British Columbia Penitentiary and other Canadian maximum-security institutions felt this allegation to be credible enough to include it in its report to Parliament.21

A year after Mr Justice Heald’s decision, it was clear that the judgment of the court in McCann had not changed anything of substance. Behind the thin veneer of physical changes, solitary confinement in maximum security was still characterized by virtually the same inhumanity and gratuitous cruelty that had existed before the trial. Why was this? Why had nothing really changed, despite the declaratory judgment of a federal court judge?

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