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

Although the commissioner’s directive and the divisional instruction go into some detail concerning the admission, transfer, and review processes, they are more general in dealing with the SHU phase program. The commissioner’s directive provides that the program of a special handling unit ‘shall be designed so that each individual inmate shall have the opportunity and responsibility to earn in so far as is practicable his unconditional return to the general inmate population of a maximum security institution.’78 Prior to December 1980, the divisional instruction provided that ‘after initial assessment and orientation at the SHU, the program shall consist of at least three phases: (1) a restricted association phase, (2) a limited association phase, and (3) an increased association phase.’79 The new commissioner’s directive of 1 December 1980 expanded the number of phases along with the criteria for admission to SHU. There are now four phases: initial assessment, limited association, increased association, and conditional transfer to a maximum-security institution.80 Common to both documents is the statement that ‘each inmate shall progress through each phase of the programme at a rate determined by his demonstrated ability. ‘81

The phase program is elaborated upon in internal institutional docu- ments put out by the authorities at the two special handling units. At Millhaven, in phase one, ‘an inmate has the following basic amenities, food, bedding, clothing, shower, one hour exercise, closed visits, correspondence, medical, psychiatric and dental care, access to library books and to legal documents.’ In phase two, ‘inmates will receive all amenities of phase one plus: minimum exercise of one hour, common room (1/2 range every other night if range count is 15 or more), movies, limited telephone calls to family, television in the cell, bonus pay system, limited access to recreation area.’ In phase three, ‘inmates will receive all amenities listed above, plus [access to the] recreation area every day. Contact visits (once every other month) if approved by the Inmate Training Board.’82

The Correctional Service of Canada perceives the special handling units to be qualitatively different from segregation units such as the SCU at the British Columbia Penitentiary, both in terms of the conditions of confinement and the procedures for admission and review of prisoners. In literature available to the public, the Correctional Service points out that SHU cells provide standard accommodation and are equal in size to those of the regular population, and although the prisoners are in dissociation ‘they are not in solitary confinement. On the contrary, the SHU inmate is out of his cell an approximate 71/2 hours a day, if he so chooses, for participation in a variety of sports and common room activities.’83 From statements such as these, and indeed from the commissioner’s directive and divisional intruction, the units appear on paper to be real improvements. But how is life within the units perceived by the prisoners confined there? Do they see their imprisonment as differing from their confinement in the old segregation units? To seek answers to these questions I visited the two special handling units in August 1980 and interviewed prisoners and those re- sponsible for the administration of the units -wardens, psychologists, classification officers, and guards. Since that first visit I have communicated further with those prisoners, and have interviewed other prisoners in British Columbia who have served time in an SHU and who are now in the population of Kent Maximum Security Institution. In November 1981 and December 1982 I again visited the SHU in Millhaven, and in May 1982 I returned to the SHU in the Correctional Development Centre. While this data base is not as extensive as that which was available to me in considering the conditions in the special correctional unit at British Columbia Penitentiary, it is in my view sufficient to form a valid judgment about the real differences between the old and new regimes.

The Millhaven special handling unit for English-speaking prisoners is located in E unit, one of the four wings of the main penitentiary. Millhaven, opened in 1971, is one of the new maximum-security institutions. The cells in the SHU are the same size as all others in the penitentiary, six feet by ten feet. The walls of the SHU cells are lined with steel, and the outside windows, which in the normal-population cells are wired glass, are covered with steel slats. These slats restrict the natural light coming into the cell and impede the prisoner’s view out of it. Each cell has a solid steel door with a five-inch peephole window. Inside the cell there is a steel bed, a steel desk-chair combination, a sink-toilet combination, and, except for the cells of phase-one prisoners, a television set. There are three ranges of cells in E unit; these are known as F, G, and H. Each range contains two floors. On range 2-F there is a ‘recreation area.’ Institutional documents subdivide this area into the ‘hobbycraft’ room, the ‘music’ room, the ‘library,’ the ‘tutoring’ room, and the ‘gym.’ In fact these areas are cells, some of which have had the connecting walls removed. At the time of my visit in August 1980, the library was a cell furnished with an empty bookcase. The music room was a cell with a shelf on which a single guitar rested. The gym was a double cell equipped with a punching-bag and exerciser. There was also what was called a common room, which contained a television and in which movies were shown. Prisoners were permitted to gather in the common room in small groups. There was an outside exercise yard surrounded by a high wall. Prisoners usually visited with their families and friends in the regular visiting area used by the general population; when other prisoners from the population were there, SHU prisoners were required to go into a cage which provided a physical barrier between them and other prisoners. As with all prisoners, regular visits were conducted through a plexiglass screen by telephone. Interviews with institutional staff, parole officers, and lawyers were held in two special ‘interview rooms’ inside the SHU. These rooms were really plexiglass cages with steel doors and remote-control locks. The prisoner was separated from the interviewer by a plexiglass barrier in the middle of which was a small opening covered by a thick steel grill. The interview was conducted through this grill. The movement of prisoners within the SHU was strictly controlled. Only one prisoner was allowed out of his cell at a time on any floor, and was always accompanied by at least two guards. These conditions were substantially unchanged when I revisited the SHU in 1981 and 1982.

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