location: publications / books / Justice Behind the Walls / Sector 4 / Chapter 2 Administrative Segregation at Matsqui and Kent,1993-6: The Persistence of Customary Law / Donnie Oag -- Twenty Years after McCann

When I had taken up the cause inscribed in Jack McCann’s hand-written writ in 1973, challenging the conditions of solitary confinement in the B.C. Penitentiary as cruel and unusual punishment, my purpose had been to end an inhumane and barbaric practice. Twenty-three years later, I heard no talk that 638 days in segregation was cruel and inhumane, no talk that it denied Donnie Oag his basic human dignity. In place of the language of respect for human rights, what I heard about was the need to "detoxify" Mr. Oag from his experience. Two years of solitary confinement was transformed from a systemic issue of injustice and abuse of human rights, calling out for redress, to an individual issue of psychological toxicity, which cried out for nothing more than decontamination through further correctional treatment.

It should not be thought that Mr. Oag’s unrelieved segregation did not cause real concern among some staff at Kent. Mr. Ouellette, the institution’s psychologist, told me that each time a plan was developed for getting Mr. Oag out of segregation and into the population of another institution, only for that plan to be rejected by the wardens of those other institutions, he found it more difficult to face Mr. Oag in an interview or at the Segregation Review Board. As he put it, he was "embarrassed" that the correctional system was treating Mr. Oag in this uncaring manner, given what he had sacrificed to protect an innocent life. Other individual staff did what they could to help Mr. Oag and were not shy about voicing their disagreement with his extended stay in segregation. But these voices were never strong enough to have an impact on the decision of the Segregation Review Board. The "Review of Inmate’s Segregated Status" form, month after month, contained the same thin lines:

You were involuntary transferred from Mountain. You have remained in segregation due to incompatibles. Your P.F.V.s have been approved. You were not approved for transfer to William Head or Mountain Institutions. (Review of Inmate’s Segregation Status, Kent Institution, May 3, 1996)

Many of Mr. Oag’s review notices also contained a further comment: "You waived your right to be seen by the Segregation Review Board." This waiver represented Mr. Oag’s judgement that nothing he could say would alter the bottom line of the Review Board’s decision -- that he be maintained in segregation. That indeed was the literal bottom line in every one of Mr. Oag’s notices: "The Board recommends your seg. status be maintained for your protection."

There are compelling reasons to see Mr. Oag’s case as a measure -- if not the litmus test -- of the reality of change in the legal and administrative regime governing segregation. Over twenty-three years ago Donnie Oag spent 682 days in solitary confinement in the B.C. Penitentiary, where his case was reviewed every thirty days by an internal board that saw no alternative but to maintain his segregation for "the good order and discipline" of the institution. As of June 19, 1996, he had spent 638 days in segregation in Kent Institution, where his case was reviewed every thirty days by an internal board who could see no other alternative but to maintain his segregation "for his own protection." Although legal reforms now gave Mr. Oag a right to appear in person before the Board, the reality was that his appearances never made a difference to the Board’s decision; Mr. Oag in fact elected to waive his right to appear, because it generated only frustration.

The conditions of Mr. Oag’s confinement had marginally improved over those two decades. In the 1990s he was permitted to have a television in his cell, though this was a mixed blessing. While the TV alleviated the crashing boredom of his isolation, the images it brought were a constant reminder of a world from which he was dissociated. In the B.C. Penitentiary, his access to exercise had taken the form of walking up and down the tier in front of his cell, at all times under the surveillance of a guard armed with shotgun; in Kent, although there was an exercise yard, at thirty feet long and fifteen feet wide it was little more than an extension of a cell. A prisoner, whether walking around its perimeter or pacing back and forth, got little sense of movement beyond pursuing his own shadow. Indeed, shadows were the only things to pursue, given that the yard was dominated by twenty-foot walls with a ceiling of thick mesh wire. Even when the sun was sufficiently high to permit its penetration to the floor of the courtyard, its rays served more to remind those below of their exile than they did to warm their bodies. Segregation had removed them from summer itself.

In the B.C. Penitentiary, Mr. Oag had lived under a regime in which physical deprivation was aggravated by abuse and harassment perpetrated by guards. Official harassment and abuse had not loomed large in Mr. Oag’s experience of segregation at Kent. However, this was small comfort, given that his fellow prisoners more than took up the slack.

The single element that distinguished Mr. Oag’s segregation in Kent from that in the B.C. Penitentiary -- and the element which literally kept him alive -- was his access to open visits and, after two years’ persistence, private family visits with the woman who was to become his wife. In 1975, the Canadian Penitentiary Service had responded to the Federal Court of Canada’s judgement in the McCann case by enlarging the window in the steel door of the segregated cells in the Penthouse of the B.C. Penitentiary. The window of opportunity opened up for Mr. Oag by his visits provided a far greater vista on normality and humanity.

Mr. Oag’s debilitating experiences in the 1990s demonstrate that new architecture, a new corps of correctional staff, and new correctional legislation have achieved little in limiting the abuses of segregation. I take no comfort in arriving at this conclusion. Because I am a reformer, not an ethnographer, it is important that I go on to grapple with the questions it raises. Why has so little changed? Are the fault lines in the substantive and procedural provisions of the correctional legislation itself; in their administration by correctional officials; or in a lack of effective enforcement of the legislative framework? In Mr. Oag’s case, and in most of the other case studies that form my study, fault lines exist in all three areas.

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