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 / Administrative Segregation in the 1980s / The Special Handling Units

The behavioural-modification theory underlying the special handling units is not unprecedented. A number of such programs were established in the United States and in England in the 1970s. The Special Treatment and Rehabilitative Training (STRT) program initiated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons at its facilities in Springfield, Missouri, was designed for prisoners regarded as hard-core unmanageables: those who had previously spent most of their time in prison in segregation and allegedly had been physically or verbally abusive toward other prisoners and guards. The program was based upon a phase system in which, as in the SHU, prisoners were deprived of regular prison privileges until they modified their behaviour in conformity to official demands. The STRT program was terminated after the initiation of a congressional inquiry and court action.50

Also in the early 1970s the Special Program Unit (SPU) was constructed in one of the remodelled cell houses at the old Joliet Prison in Illinois to house the ‘hard-core prison troublemakers’ from Stateville. The SPU incorporated a three-tiered behaviour-modification plan, the general purpose of which was to ‘attempt through intensive therapeutic application, to assist the individuals assigned to acquire the necessary motivation and desire essential for integration into the general prison population.’ Personnel assigned to the SPU were responsible for creating ‘a therapeutic climate conducive to innovational diagnostic-treatment-program concepts.’51 This program was challenged by litigation initiated by the American Civil Liberties Union on the basis that confinement in SPU amounted to cruel and unusual punishment and that assignment to the unit was a punitive disposition requiring due process safeguards. The Federal District Court granted the due process relief but refused to find that the unit violated the Eighth Amendment.52 Prisoners assigned to the unit refused to accept their confinement there and engaged in massive resistance, which took the form of smashing the cells. Notwithstanding the fact that the federal court found the unit not to be in violation of the Eighth Amendment, the Illinois Correction Department quietly abandoned the behaviour- modification experiment, and converted the unit into a regular segregation facility.53

The British prison authorities had also preceded Canada in the establishment of special super-maximum units. In 1974 the British home secretary announced that ‘control units for intractable prisoners’ would be opened. The process was originally described as follows:

If a governor regarded a man as ‘intractable,’ he made a report to the Prison Department. If the latter agreed, the man was despatched to a control unit. For ninety days, he would remain in isolation. He was not obliged to work but, if he did not, the days on which he refused to do so would not count. At the end of ninety days, he began another ninety days, this time in ‘association’ with the other members of the unit. If there were no other members, he could, presumably, associate only with the staff. If at any time during the two consecutive phases he misbehaved, he began the whole process again, regardless of any discretion a governor might feel like exercising. The first phase comprised 23 hours in a cell and one hour’s exercise. The prisoner was allowed books, photographs, birthday and Christmas cards. There was no hearing and no judicial appeal.54

The proposal was greeted with a great deal of criticism from civil-liberties organizations and academics concerned with prisoners’ rights.55 As a result of these criticisms, the home secretary announced in November 1974 that he would introduce some changes in the procedures. A proposal to transfer a prisoner was now to be referred to the board of visitors of the prison in which he was detained and ‘transfer would not be authorized against its view unless [the home secretary has] personally considered the proposal and announced that [he believes] it to be right.’56 The board of visitors in the receiving prison was to be associated with a reviewing procedure, the most important facet of which was a new discretion to be exercised by the board or the governor about ‘the extent to which a prisoner should revert if he misbehaves.’57 These changes did little to abate the criticism directed against control units, criticism which included legal arguments that the establishment of the control units was not authorized by the general segregation power contained in the prison rules.58 In the face of the criticism the British government in 1975 closed down the one control unit it had established at Wakefield Prison.59

The concept of special handling units has proved to be more enduring in Canada. In December 1980 the solicitor-general announced a new ‘dangerous-inmate policy’ based on the expanded use of special handling units. This new policy has been reflected in significant changes to the divisional instructions and commissioner’s directives which provide the administra- tive framework for the units. Because my own visits to the SHUs and inter- views with prisoners being held in them span these changes, I will be refer- ring to both the pre- and post-December 1980 framework.60

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