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

How real is the phase program in the CDC? At the time of my first visit in August 1980, despite the fact that the SHU had been opened for three years, the program existed only on paper. Phase one was simply ‘the hole’; twenty-three-hour solitary confinement. The regime in block 5 for phase- two and phase-three prisoners provided for two hours’ exercise in the yard each day in the morning or afternoon, and permitted all prisoners in both phases to go into one of the two common rooms from 6:30 P.M. to 10:30 P.M. each night. All prisoners were permitted showers every day. Control of prisoners’ movements was even more strict than at Millhaven in all phases. Each time a prisoner left his cell he was escorted by three officers, and in phase two and phase three prisoners were required to enter the common room one at a time through an antechamber. Behaviour in the common room, as in the yard, was observed at all times by armed officers. In all phases prisoner interviews, including those with staff, took place in the interview room, where a thick wire grill separated the prisoner from the interviewer.

In my meetings with the staff and the warden of the CDC there was no pretense that the phase system had been implemented in the unit. Mr Pierre Goulem, the warden, told me frankly that given the limited facilities, which consisted of nothing more than forty cells, two common rooms, and a yard, there was no sense in pretending that there were distinctions in the quality of imprisonment. Mr Goulem had refused to allow block 5 to have representatives on the institution’s inmate committee because, in his view, doing so would serve no purpose. The limited facilities meant that there was nothing to negotiate on conditions of confinement. I was informed that national headquarters, however, had been putting pressure on the administration to divide the program into phases and, in accordance with the Vantour-McReynolds model, to call the time spent in the hole phase one of the program.

At the CDC, as at Millhaven, I asked the staff assigned to block 5 about the criteria for release from the special handling unit. The psychologist, who sees people at their request, was able to identify one case in which the prisoner actively sought assistance and asked to take English classes in order to be able to transfer to an institution in the west. He had thereby demonstrated a positive desire and a positive attitude toward change. The psychologist conceded that this was an exceptional case, and that most prisoners did not seek his assistance in that way. In that particular case, the prisoner had been involved in an escape attempt with three others. While this prisoner had been released from the SHU, the others remained there. It was explained to me that while this was partly attributable to the prisoner’s positive attitude (the others remained defiant), it was also attributable to the fact that he had not been one of the organizers of the escape. The psychologist explained that in recommending release he looked at the ‘quality of the violence’ that had brought the prisoner to the CDC in the first place. Thus, in the case of a hostage-taking, the distinction was to be drawn between the case where the incident was not planned or had been precipitated by some emotional crisis and where the staff had not been harmed, and the case where there had been premeditation and where physical harm had been done to one or more of the hostages. In the psychologist’s view there was an important principle at stake in making ‘the punishment fit the crime.’ This viewpoint is highly significant because it points to the underlying reality of the SHUs. They are intended to serve as a means of additional punishment for what are perceived to be outrages to institutional order. Whatever increase in his sentence the prisoner may receive, for at least part of that time the sentence will be served in the SHU and heightened in intensity.

I asked the warden about the criteria applied in the thirty-day reviews. I was told that the criteria for release were very vague in his mind. He conceded that the absence of any real programs made it extremely difficult to judge a prisoner’s attitude except in the negative sense of not causing trouble. Mr Goulem did not provide prisoners with a thirty-day notification slip because there was nothing to say, except that the prisoner had to serve more time before he could be released. My interviews with the staff at the CDC in August 1980 confirmed the judgment of the prisoners that ‘time is basically the only program.’123

To prisoners who have served time both in the solitary-confinement unit of the British Columbia Penitentiary and in the CDC special handling unit, imprisonment in the CDC is experienced as more oppressive. This is caused by a combination of the small size of the cells, the lack of an outside window, the inadequacy of the ventilation, and, most of all, the pervasive ‘aerial’ surveillance. Clare Wilson, who was one of the defendants in the case of R. v. Bruce, Lucas, and Wilson,124 explained to me why the CDC was worse than the British Columbia Penitentiary.

It’s like being in a doll house with the top off, the constant peering in by the guards. In the BC Pen at least the gun was across the catwalk. Here it’s right OVE your head. In the BC Penitentiary there was no pretense. There were three concrete walls and a steel door and that was it. You and the guards knew exactly what the score was. Here they give you a television in your cell and a common room and then treat you just the same but they pretend that it’s a different trip ...The TV set ...that rationalizes the cage. It’s really strange but I have this feeling that I could be nailed to my wall with spikes but as long as I have TV the public would focus on that latter point and ignore the spikes driven through my hands and feet. 125

Another prisoner, who spent almost two years in the CDC, told me,

You can never understand the helplessness of being in that cell. You are robbed of every moment of your day. There is nothing you can hold sacred in there. These places are for breaking the individuals and turning them into robots. Psychologically, the programs are based on submission and unquestioning obedience. 126

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