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

In 1983, the rhetoric of subjection is no longer religious. The new administrative priests are the classification officers, the psychologists and the correctional bureaucrats who make up the review committees. What they seek is a change not in spiritual values but in ‘attitude.’

The prisoners in the special handling units have no doubt that their imprisonment is the continuation of the regimes that have preceded it in history. Perhaps the most articulate description by a prisoner of the special handling units and their real objectives is contained in a letter written by Edgar Roussel in 1980. The letter was addressed to the Honour- able Mark MacGuigan in his former capacity as chairman of the Parliamentary Subcommittee on the Penitentiary System. At the time of writing, Mr Roussel had spent over two years in the special handling unit in the Correctional Development Centre in Quebec. Mr Roussel describes eloquently the rhetoric of reformation in the SHU. It is to bring about the desired metamorphosis from cocoon to butterfly... by pretending that we who have been disconnected from life, are reborn. 116

The reality, however, has more to do with death than life

The system aims to reduce the criminal to nothing, restrain the slightest initiative, and in one word, assassinate his personality to make him conform to the microcosm in which he is forced to develop. When the prisoner has become sufficiently conniving, hypocritical and lying that he can pretend to acknowledge the assassination to his executioners, then he is eligible for a transfer. 117

What does prolonged confinement in the special handling unit do to a man? The correctional authorities answer this question positively by pointing to the fact that few people who have been through the special handling units have been returned for further offences involving violence within an institutional setting, a statement that echoes the evaluation of the Prison of Isolation made in the earlier part of this century. The prisoners are not so positive about their experience. Through the medium of the McCann case I have already described the effects of long-term solitary confinement in the British Columbia Penitentiary. Many of the prisoners I interviewed have now experienced both that regime and the SHU in Millhaven. They told me that the harassment that is characteristic of ‘the penthouse’ is also a feature of the special handling unit -the snapping open of the electronically controlled cell doors for no purpose other than to disturb the prisoner’s sleep, the shining of flashlights in prisoners’ eyes in the middle of the night, the taunting of prisoners who are on the edge of sanity or who have already slipped over to the other side. They described the fifty-watt night-light that requires them to sleep with their eyes away from the light and which they view as unjustified by any security measures; they see the best evidence of its gratuitousness in the fact that in the Quebec SHU (where, as I will describe, the physical conditions are more rigorous than in Millhaven) much lower-wattage night-lights are used. The prisoners insist that in some highly significant ways the special handling unit is worse than the penthouse at the British Columbia Penitentiary. This is how one of them described it:

What gets you about this place is the level of the violence. On the surface people seem to get on in a reasonable fashion but just below the surface is a terrible rage and anger about how they are being treated. This anger and rage can explode at any moment. You never know who will be the next one to blow. So you live in constant paranoia, the fear that the guy next to you will be next to go and that you may be the next to get it. Most of the violence is never reported for fear that it will get onto the guy’s record. We mend our own wounds, even set our own broken bones. Sometimes we have to cut ourselves and infect the wound in order to get pennicilin from the doctor to give to the guys who are badly hurt. I have become a paramedic in this hole. 118

The undercurrent of violence in the SHU poses a terrible dilemma for the prisoners. If they seek to avoid it by staying in their cells or forgoing exercise in the yard or time in the common room, they will be viewed negatively as demonstrating an unwillingness or an inability to associate with others. If they decide to come out of their cells when they are concerned about being attacked, they feel they are forced to carry a knife or other weapon in order to defend themselves. If a weapon is discovered, the authorities’ view that they are indeed dangerous and require further confinement in the SHU is reinforced.

A further behavioural dilemma that confronts prisoners in an SHU is very well expressed by a man who spent over two years at Millhaven before being transferred to Kent.

I’m apparently involved as the range librarian, and I am performing other odd jobs on the Tier, and therefore I am involving myself in the only programs available to prisoners in this unit. It occurs to me that ...perhaps someone on the [Review] Board feels that I am nevertheless dangerous ...I am not ‘demonstrating a lack of hostility.’ The testimony I have heard from eminent psychiatrists and psychologists was to the effect that this kind of incarceration predictably increases hostility. I indicated that if this was the case, then it would be in effect impossible for me to become less hostile in an environment that creates more’ hostility. This, in turn, would make it impossible for me to secure my release from the Unit if one of the criteria is that I must demonstrate less hostility. As seems to be customary in the Penitentiary Service, I appear to have been placed in a catch-22 type of situation. Inger Hansen and all the psychiatrists who testified at my trial [R. v. Bruce, Lucas, and Wilson], also psychiatrists who testified before the Penitentiary Subcommittee, indicated that placing people in solitary confinement over extended periods of time leads to punishment-induced agression. And yet, the Penitentiary Service, by Directive 174, requires the inmate to secure his release to demonstrate lack of hostility. In other words, they put you in a situation which, according to psychiatrists, will increase your hostility predictably as a matter of psychology of human behaviour, and yet at the same time, they say that the only way we can get out is if we show less hostility.

How are we supposed to reduce hostility in an environment that increases hostility? They seem to look at violence and hostility in isolation without any concern about the causes. While they may be sincere in their objective to achieve release of inmates from the Unit, they do not appear to be looking at the root of the problem, namely the causes of the hostility or violence. They have no pro- gram designed to reduce hostility and violence in these units. I suppose they expect the individual to simply release his hostility and violence through some sort of magical process.119

Page 13 of 17