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Section
location: publications / books / Prisoners of Isolation: Solitary Confinement in Canada / Chapter 5 The Penitentiariesí Response to the McCann Case: Canadaís New Prisons of Isolation / Administrative Segregation in the 1980s / The Special Handling Units

It will be recalled that two features of the special handling unit model as described in the Vantour-McReynolds Report distinguished the units from the old-style segregation units: activities outside the prisonerís cell which would provide sensory and intellectual stimulation, and opportunities for the prisoner to earn his return to the general population through a phased program. How well does the SHU at Millhaven achieve these objectives? In phase one of the program there is no real difference between the regime in Millhaven and that in the segregation unit in the British Columbia Penitentiary. The prisoners are locked up for twenty-three hours a day, with one hour for exercise. There is no contact with other prisoners. In phases two and three prisoners are permitted to have television sets in their cells, and to have one or two hours of exercise in the yard daily. In phase two they are permitted to spend four hours in the common room every other evening; in phase three the time is increased to four hours every evening. This means that in total a prisoner in phase two spends an average of six hours out of his cell every forty-eight hours, while a phase-three prisoner can be out up to six hours every day. While these figures are less than the seven and one-half hours a day claimed by the Canadian Correctional Service in its official literature, they show that there is much more time for prisoner association than had been available in the segregation unit at the British Columbia Penitentiary.

Nevertheless, all of the prisoners I interviewed at the SHU in Millhaven were of the view that the unit, despite the television sets, common rooms, and exercise yard, was as bad as the old-style segregation units they had all experienced. Clearly this judgment was not based on the physical conditions or amenities made available to prisoners, harsh and limited as they still are. Rather, just as the most important evidence in the McCann case dealt with the psychological implications of segregation, so the prisoners at the SHU in Millhaven, in their accounts of their experiences, dealt again and again with the psychological reality they saw lying behind their incarceration.

It may seem paradoxical, given that the phase program was designed to distinguish in positive ways between special handling units and the old-style segregation units, that the program is the focal point for much of the prisonersí protests. The prisoners see the phase program as a cruel parody of reform. They are told about the three phases when they come into the SHU at Millhaven and that there are opportunities for the prisoners to advance through the successive phases and to attain eventual release from the unit. They are told that classification and psychological staff members will be available to assist them and to evaluate their performance. Every prisoner I interviewed denied the reality of this model. Three of the prisoners, including two who were plaintiffs in the McCann case, expressed their experience in this way:

This place is Tomb City. They want you to do nothing. There is no program. The jobs are made up - the library without any books.84

How do you get out of here - you do nothing. Not get charged. But even that will not guarantee that you get out. If you do nothing they may say they are not sure where you are coming from. One guy has been here three years and he was told at his six month review ĎWe donít know you.í This place is no different than the BC Pen. I donít know when they will let me out or what I have to do to make theIr let me out ...The difference between this place and the BCPen? In the BC Pen they treated me as if I didnít exist. Here, when my father died someone put a note telling me about it under my cell door. Itís no different. They treat you as if you werenít a person. 85

They play psychological head games with you. My Classification Officer told me that he was recommending that I be put into phase 3 because my attitude had changed. Thatís bullshit - my attitude hasnít changed at all. Iím just the same as when I came in here. Iíve done enough time. Iíve been here one of the longest. Thatís why they want me to go into phase 3. 86

I asked every prisoner I saw what he understood to be required of him by the administration in order to be promoted into the next phase and ultimately to be released from the SHU. Every prisoner told me that he did not know what he had to do except. put in a certain amount of time, which was at least one year but which might be a lot longer, and meanwhile not cause any trouble. None saw any positive actions that he could take, since all that was available was television, the common room, and the yard. There were no real work opportunities in the SHU apart from cleaning. While prisoners are permitted to take correspondence courses, the prisoners I interviewed who had sought to explore this avenue had given it up largely owing to their inability to concentrate in the unit and the impersonality of the feedback they received.87

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