location: publications / books / Justice Behind the Walls / Sector 4 / Chapter 1 Administrative Segregation: The Litmus Test of Legitimacy / The Isabelle Case

On October 24, a petition signed by nearly every prisoner at Kent was submitted to the warden. It alleged that the warden was using the segregation process improperly to bring peer pressure on the prisoner population to yield up the pliers. They further alleged that the warden was responding in an unjust way to the criticism levelled at him by the community and police in the wake of the recent escape. Copies of the petition were sent to the Solicitor General, government Opposition critics, and the media. On October 25, the Segregation Review Board met, and following this review three of the five prisoners were released from segregation. The reasons for their release were similar and are reflected in the following excerpt from the minutes:

[Prisoner D] was segregated because of his suspected involvement in an escape plot with four other inmates. Prisoner D was interviewed by the Board at his request. During this interview he stated that he was not involved in any escape plot and that he in fact had passed up the opportunity to escape when two other inmates had escaped on 13th October. He also emphasized that he was working toward transfer to lesser security and that he was not intending to escape with only four and a half years left in his sentence. The Board was of the unanimous opinion that there is a strong possibility that prisoner D was not involved in any escape plan at this time. It was recommended that he be given the benefit of the doubt and that he be released to the general population. (Segregation Review Board Hearing Minutes, Kent Institution, October 25, 1983)

Mr. Isabelle, at his review, also submitted that he was not involved in an escape plot and had proved this by not escaping with the two prisoners from the schoolroom. He pointed out that he was within five months of his parole eligibility date and hoped to receive a recommendation for transfer to lesser security. He was not about to do anything to jeopardize his chances before the Parole Board after serving almost five years of a 15-year sentence, he said. Yet despite the similarity of Mr. Isabelleís arguments to those of other prisoners, he was not released from segregation. The reasons are contained in the minutes of the Review Board:

Isabelle was segregated because of suspicion that he and four other inmates were involved in an escape plot. Isabelle was recently released from segregation after charges linking him to possession of escape tools (wire cutters and a Folger Adams key blank) were dismissed by the Independent Chairperson at institutional court. Prior to his release, he was counselled by the head living unit officer as to the expectations that would be put on him by living unit staff. Despite this counsel, there are serious indications that Isabelle may have been involved in an escape plan. Due to the above circumstance, the members of the Segregation Review Board unanimously recommend that Isabelle be held in segregation until a transfer to another maximum-security institution can be effected. Hopefully such a move will diffuse any plot that he is involved in at this time.(Segregation Review Board Hearing Minutes, October 26, 1983)

Thus, the primary reason for keeping Mr. Isabelle in segregation was the staff's belief that he had been trying to escape earlier in the year, notwithstanding the dismissal of those charges in disciplinary court. Mr. Isabelle remained in segregation for another two weeks, until November 10. On that date the Segregation Review Board reconsidered his case, and the minutes reflect the results:

Isabelle was segregated because of suspicion that he was involved in an escape plot. However, despite past indications of this type of activity, there is no solid evidence to presently indicate his involvement in an escape plot. The Board recommends that the option of releasing Isabelle to the Induction Unit pending decision on transfer to another maximum-security institution be considered by the warden. It is proposed to have Isabelle remain in Induction until transferred. (Segregation Review Board Hearing Minutes, Kent Institution, November 8, 1983)

That proposal was accepted by the warden. Mr. Isabelle was transferred to Induction where, because of overcrowding, he was required to double-bunk.

Perhaps no better case could be found to illustrate the capriciousness of the administrative segregation process; suspicion is layered upon suspicion to yield "serious indications" that a prisoner is involved in an escape plot, and yet three weeks later the suspicion evaporates to reveal "no solid evidence" of any such involvement. However, the case does not end here. Mr. Isabelle requested that he be released from Induction back into the general population. Since the institution had conceded there was no case against him, he argued, there was no justification for keeping him there, particularly since he was double-bunked, was confined to the unit most of the day, and had no access to the work or hobby programs available to the rest of the population. His argument went unheeded.

Mr. Isabelle was joined in the Induction Unit in late December and early January by first one, then the other prisoner who had escaped from the schoolroom in October. Both had been placed in segregation at the time of their recapture and remained there until their conviction on criminal charges arising from the escape. As in the case of Mr. Isabelle, the warden had decided that the two escapees would be transferred to another maximum-security institution. However, unlike Mr. Isabelle, both escapees were released from Induction into the general population prior to their transfers being effected.

When these two prisoners left the Induction Unit, Mr. Isabelle renewed his efforts to be allowed to return to the population. His argument at this point seemed overwhelming, and no doubt an independent adjudicator would have seen it that way. Here were two prisoners who had recently been convicted of criminal charges of escape. They were viewed by the institution as sufficiently serious threats to the good order of Kent to justify their transfer to other maximum-security prisons. One of them had also served time in a Special Handling Unit. In light of these facts, how could the warden justify releasing them back into the generaly population but keeping Mr. Isabelle in the Induction Unit? How could he conceivably be more of an escape risk than two prisoners who had actually escaped?

I was mystified by the administrationís continued refusal to release Mr. Isabelle to the population. Indeed, I found the inherent arbitrariness in the three cases so blatant that I asked the warden if there was some factor I was missing which would explain the different treatment afforded Mr. Isabelle. His response was that his staff continued to express serious concerns about Mr. Isabelle and, in his view, Mr. Isabelle was a risk if left in the general population. The basis for that staff concern went back to preventive security sources, he said, and was ultimately a judgement call.

This is what Mr. Isabelle had to say about the wardenís judgement call in a letter he sent to me shortly before he was transferred from Kentís Induction Unit to another maximum-security penitentiary:

All I ask is to be treated fairly, like everybody else here. Some guys actually do things here, like escape on the street, or stabbing or fighting, and they get back in the population. But me, I donít do anything and get here on suspicion over nothing. It is cruel and unusual punishment and itís got to end somewhere. (Letter from Marcel Isabelle to Michael Jackson, November 1, 1983)

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