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The Madness of Segregation

In Prisoners of Isolation, I described how "the screams in the night" heard from the solitary confinement cells of England’s Pentonville Prison and Canada’s Kingston Penitentiary in the 1840s had not been stilled by the 1980s. The horror of prisoners who have slipped over the edge in segregation is carried forward in the oral history of maximum-security prisons and captured here by Jerome Washington, in his description of a psychological observation room at Attica:

Room Number 1 -- called ‘the space station’ -- is the prison hospital’s psycho observation room. There is nothing in this room except a mattress on the floor, a bare bulb in the ceiling and ghosts of minds out of control. Every night, shrieks and howls from Room Number 1 sound across the empty yard. They remind us, caged in the cells, that going over the wall is not the only escape. As in a game of chance where every number is a potential winner, in prison every inmate is a potential space case. We all have an inside story waiting to be screamed across the yard. (Jerome Washington, Iron House: Stories from the Yard [New York: Vintage Books, 1994] at 97)

On May 25, 1994, I spent a deeply disturbing shift in the segregation unit at Kent interviewing prisoners, listening to their stories and to their screams, some issued aloud, others confined to prisoners’ minds. These interviews bear testament to the ways in which long-term segregation undermines a person’s psychological hold on reality and intensifies a sense of injustice and paranoia.

John Edwards set out his recent institutional history, which he claimed was filled with unfair treatment. This had generated within him a rage which, given that he was just three months away from statutory release, should have been -- but did not seem to be -- of great concern to the Segregation Review Board. Mr. Edwards was serving a 4-year sentence for robbery. He had been transferred from Alberta’s Bowden Institution to Matsqui in November 1992, although he had requested Mission Institution as he had an incompatible at Matsqui. Within days of arriving at Matsqui, his incompatible left a note in his jacket to the effect, "Check in, goof, or you die." He passed this note on to staff, who told him to try to settle the issue on his own. The next day a prisoner wearing a hood came into the cell where Mr. Edwards was watching television and struck him on the head with a chair leg, opening a gash that required twenty-three stitches to close. After leaving hospital, Mr. Edwards was placed in segregation at Matsqui for his own protection. He was there for forty-seven days, until his transfer to Mission early in January 1993. He spent Christmas and New Year's Day in segregation.

In June of 1993, Mr. Edwards was transferred to Kent because of alleged negative and deteriorating behaviour, including a threat to set a fire by piling up a bunch of grievance papers and igniting them. He told me this was a protest against the inadequate responses he had received to the grievances and was not meant as a serious threat. He was in segregation at Kent for some two months before being transferred to the PC population. He remained there until April of 1994, when he was placed in segregation following being punched by another prisoner. He now refused to return to the population because he was "tired of dealing with the games out there." His statutory release date was September 1994, and he had applied for a transfer to Mountain Institution to try to get free from the anger and negativity of his last few years. He told me he had an offer of a job on the street but wanted to make sure he was able to take best advantage of it.

The last several weeks had been particularly difficult for Mr. Edwards. He was double-bunked with Mr. Pope, who had slashed himself in frustration at his own situation. He was placed in the observation cell for a day and then brought back into Mr. Edwards’ cell. Mr. Edwards was extremely frightened by the situation, because he did not know whether Mr. Pope would try to slash again or might attack him. In fact, Mr. Pope did slash himself again, and this time he was taken to the Regional Psychiatric Centre. Mr. Edwards was left to clean up the blood himself. He had not spoken to anyone about the incident, although he admitted it had had a traumatic impact on him.

As I have explained in "Operation Big Scoop," there are procedures in place for dealing with possible post-traumatic stress among staff who experience incidents involving threats or violence to themselves or their colleagues. Had a staff member witnessed a slashing, it would have been the subject of a debriefing with the institutional psychologist. Yet Mr. Edwards had experienced, close up, two slashings by his cellmate and had received no counselling.

Mr. Edwards ended the interview by saying, "Recently my CO-II told me that I won’t be leaving segregation before my statutory release except through the hospital or in a body bag. What do they expect when they release me on the street? That I’m going to be like a model citizen?"

Later that day I met with John Soane, who had just been told that the appeal against his transfer from Mission had been dismissed. He was beside himself and told me in front of two officers, "I just can’t take it any more." In our interview, he fluctuated between voicing great anger and expressing despair. His stuttering increased. He said he asked only to leave K unit and go over to J unit; he would then at least be able to look out of his cell window and see people and cars moving. I relayed Mr. Soane’s request to a correctional supervisor, who agreed to this. After Mr. Soane packed his stuff, it was brought over to J unit, checked, and then issued back to him. I went to talk with him in the observation cell. He was sitting on his bed with his face in his hands. As on many previous occasions at Kent, I found myself on my knees at the food slot of a segregation cell, endeavouring to reassure a man on the point of giving up that there were still people who cared about him and would try to redress the injustice he felt so keenly. Mr. Soane repeated over and over again, "How can they do this to me? I have done nothing wrong." I said I would talk to his lawyer in the morning to see if she was thinking about an appeal, and promised to talk to the deputy warden about his alleged incompatible in the PC population. It was clear that John Soane could do no more time in the hole. He was at the point where further segregation could tip the balance from survival to self-destruction.

On this occasion the staff at Kent behaved in a caring way, demonstrating an understanding for what the prisoner was going through, in sharp contrast to the callous indifference I had observed years earlier in the Penthouse and H unit. But this could not change the reality that an extended stay in segregation ultimately dissolves the hope of the strongest person and generates a cycle of alternating rage and despair. As it always has, seeing men reduced to this state brings up my own scream of outrage that we can do this to our fellow human beings.

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Segregation Unit, Kent Institution