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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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