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

From my interviews with prisoners who have served time in the special handling units, it seems clear to me that their hostility to authority has not been abated by their imprisonment, either through ‘some sort of magical process’ or in any other way. In the privacy of the interviews they expressed quietly the anger and contempt the units had generated or reinforced. The long-term implications of confinement in the special handling units were dramatically described by one of them: ‘They expect you to go “tick, tick, tick” and come out of SHU and just keep on ticking. But when you come out you are so angry ...what they’ve done is light a time bomb.’120

So far I have focused on the conditions in the SHU at Millhaven. There is a second unit located in the Correctional Development Centre (CDC) in Laval, Quebec. Like Millhaven, the CDC is a modern facility; it was opened in 1968. The institution was designed to be a super-maxim urn-security prison to hold ‘incorrigibles’ and was originally called the special correction unit. In fact, it was only briefly used as such and, in the words of the Parliamentary Subcommittee on the Penitentiary System, became ‘the unwanted foster child of the system.’121 Its original purpose was revived in 1978 when block 5 was designated the special handling unit for the Quebec region.

Block 5 consists of two ranges of cells with twenty cells in each range. There are two common rooms, an interview room, and a central control area for the custody officers. There is also an exercise yard at the end of cell blocks. The cells are the same size as those in the rest of the institution and are considerably smaller than those in the penthouse of the British Columbia Penitentiary. Each cell is equipped with a sink-toilet combination, a bed which is attached to the floor, a shelf for books and clothes, a radio, and a television set. There is a fluorescent light in the ceiling and a very dim night-light. The cells in the CDC have no windows to the outside to admit natural light. The door contains a window approximately eight inches by eight inches looking into the corridor. Heating and ventilation are provided through a duct-and-vent system. One feature of block 5 differentiates it from all other segregation units in Canada: prisoners in the cells are kept under surveillance by officers patrolling on top of the cells. A catwalk runs the length of the cell block, and a window in the ceiling of each cell permits the armed officers to see into the cell below as they patrol. Prisoners look up through the ceiling window at a gun, and are reminded constantly of the pervasive surveillance by the noise of the guard’s boots on the roof as he walks back and forth above the range. Although a vinyl covering has been laid on part of the roof to muffle some of the noise, it is still an intrusive presence inside the cell.

The following paragraph, taken from a letter written by a prisoner in 1980, provides us with images of life in the CDC that recall Ignatieff’s description of the solitary-confinement regime of Pentonville 140 years earlier:

It is going on midnight and I’m wide awake. The nights are like long black caverns through which you slowly grope toward the light of dawn. I have no window, but a skylight in the ceiling. I can see the roof through the skylight which is set with huge white glass bubbles that let the light filter in during the daytime. I sleep a lot but not truly, always awake sensible to the slow ticking away of the night and the myriad sounds of the prison. Night is the kingdom of the ears, which develop enormously, seizing sounds and passing them on greatly amplified to the brain. There are no mice here like in the old Pen [St Vincent de Paul]. I miss the patter of their little feet; instead, the p-tang of the pressure button in the sinks, the shuffling of the guards feet on my ceiling, or the banging of electric doors, all are borne upon me, a long familiar accompaniment to my night’s rest. 122

Until 1981, when prisoners were first received into the special handling unit at the CDC, they were not placed in block 5. Rather, they were put into the segregation unit of the main institution, which is adjacent to block 5, for phase one of the program. Everyone, including the officials, referred to it as ‘the hole.’ The cells are similar in size to those in block 5, but the overhead ceiling window is smaller and the steel door is solid except for a judas spy-hole. A prisoner usually spent a month in this hole before moving to block 5.

In 1981 a second wing of the CDC, block 7, was designated part of the special handling unit. Under the current regime prisoners are placed on admission in block 7 for phase one for one month. They are then transferred to block 5 for phase two and returned to block 7 for phase three. Block 7 is also used for SHU prisoners requiring protective custody and for punitive dissocation.

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