The Blake Case
The second example of the 1980s’ segregation process at Kent involves
the two prisoners who escaped in October 1983, Stuart Stonechild and Willy
Blake. They were apprehended without incident the same day and were returned
to Kent, where they were immediately placed in segregation. They were
formally charged under the Criminal Code with escape, and told at their
first Segregation Review Board hearing that they would remain in segregation
pending disposition of these charges. On December 7, 1983, both prisoners
were convicted of escape. Two weeks later, on December 21, Stuart Stonechild
was released from segregation into the Induction Unit to await his transfer
to another maximum-security institution. His co-accused, Willy Blake,
was not released at that time. The Review Board minutes state that "whilst
in segregation Stonechild has been generally co-operative with all staff";
in relation to Mr. Blake, however, "members of the Board felt that his
attitude towards staff has been hostile and abrasive during his time in
H Unit. Given this attitude plus his recent escape, it was felt by the
Board that release to the general population would be inappropriate as
he has not earned this privilege" (Segregation Review Board Hearing Minutes,
Kent Institution, December 21, 1983).
Prior to his segregation, Mr. Blake had been involved with other Aboriginal
prisoners at Kent in seeking recognition of the right to practise their
distinctive spirituality. After the breakdown of initial negotiations
with the administration, he and two other prisoners had gone on a hunger
strike to obtain recognition of their right to perform the sacred pipe
ceremony and to hold sweat lodges within prison walls. Their action brought
national attention to the problem and precipitated more negotiation, as
a result of which procedures were worked out which enabled these ceremonies
to be introduced into Kent. The procedures also enabled Aboriginal prisoners
to keep medicine bundles, which contain items used for prayer and often
include sagebrush and sweetgrass, on their person and in their cells.
When Mr. Stonechild and Mr. Blake escaped, they took their medicine bundles
with them, and these medicine bundles were confiscated by RCMP officers upon the
men's capture. An arresting officer asked Mr. Blake if the medicine bundle
was a device to disguise human scent in case tracker dogs were used in
the search. When Mr. Blake explained the spiritual significance of the
medicine bundles, the RCMP returned them to the prisoners.
When the prisoners were placed in segregation at Kent, the medicine
bundles were again taken from them. According to Mr. Blake, the staff
desecrated the medicine bundles by opening them and dumping the contents
on the floor. This he viewed as contrary to the negotiated procedures,
which required that staff treat all spiritual items with the utmost respect.
After several days in segregation, he asked for the return of his medicine
bundle and was told by security staff that it was being retained as evidence
at the request of the RCMP. Mr. Blake heard this with some disbelief,
given that the bundle had been returned to him by the arresting RCMP.
Through the intervention of Sasha Pawliuk, a lawyer with Prisoners’ Legal
Services, it was established that the RCMP had not requested that the
bundles be retained as evidence. However, it was six weeks before the
administration conceded that there had been a mistake.
During this time Mr. Blake continued to press for the return of his
articles and also requested visits from two Aboriginal spiritual advisors
who came into the institution to participate in the pipe ceremony and
sweat lodges. He was interviewed each week by one of a number of assistant
wardens who visited the segregation unit; each time he requested the return
of his medicine bundle, he was told the assistant warden would inquire
into the matter. The bundle was not returned to him, however, nor did
his repeated requests to see the spiritual advisors lead to a meeting
with them. On December 12, a member of the security staff informed Mr.
Blake that he was returning to him those effects he was permitted to have
in the segregation unit, and Mr. Blake was handed a brown paper bag that
contained what was left of his medicines. In a letter of protest to the
warden, Willy Blake stated, "They appear to have been put through a blender
of some sort. The desecration was so complete that in the list compiled
by your office my medicines were referred to as ‘miscellaneous plant-like
debris’ " (undated). Mr. Blake protested that the handling of his effects
showed disrespect for his religious rights. He also maintained that his
"attitude," which staff cited as the reason for keeping him in segregation,
was a justifiable response to the cavalier "attitude" demonstrated by
staff towards his constitutional right to practise his religion.
Many issues in this case would have been addressed differently had there
been an independent adjudicator chairing the Segregation Review Board.
First was the institution’s justification for keeping the two prisoners
in segregation until the disposition of the escape charges. Certainly
an initial period of segregation was justified, as the administration
completed an investigation to see if any other prisoners had been involved.
But beyond that there was no legal justification for keeping the two men
there. Given that no violence was associated with the escape and that
the prisoners had not resisted recapture, there was no question of their
being transferred to a Special Handling Unit, and it was not seriously
argued that if they were in the population they would try to escape again.
They were kept in segregation because the "customary law" at a maximum-security
institution is that if you escape, you remain in segregation until your
charges are dealt with. That customary law is not supported by the legislative
framework for segregation, however. An independent adjudicator would have
compelled the institution to demonstrate reasonable grounds for believing
the two men would constitute a threat to the security of the institution
if returned to the general population.
Independent adjudication would also have addressed the denial of Mr.
Blake’s medicine bundle and access to the elders. Had this been done in
a timely fashion, Mr. Blake would not have had to engage in verbal protests,
or at least those protests would have been placed in their proper context.
Where prison officials are armed with the widest administrative discretion
to segregate "for the good order and discipline of the institution," this
kind of legitimate protest against the abrogation of constitutional rights
is easily converted into a "negative attitude" towards authority, justifying
continued segregation. Mr. Blake’s hunger strike had brought significant
media attention to the institution, and his escape had been extremely
embarrassing to the administration. Keeping him in segregation, therefore,
created significant dividends in terms of a "payback." Yet this concept,
however understandable within the human dynamics of a maximum-security
prison, is not a justifiable or lawful basis for segregation.
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