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The Effects of Segregation -- The Pains of Imprisonment versus Behavioural Deep Freeze

The Arbour recommendation for independent adjudication was not, however, based solely on the need to ensure compliance with the law and the legal characterization of segregation. Because, on her assessment of the evidence and the literature, "There is no rehabilitative effect from long-term segregation, and every reason to be concerned that it may be harmful," placing a prisoner in long-term segregation subjects that prisoner to greater deprivation than originally envisaged by the sentencing court and therefore the use, and in her view, the overuse of long-term segregation, must be subject to independent oversight.

In coming to these conclusions, Madam Justice Arbour reviewed the debate in the scientific and criminological communities on the effects segregation has on prisoners who are subjected to it. This was an issue which had been the subject of evidence in the McCann case in 1975, and in Prisoners of Isolation I reviewed the available clinical and empirical research on the subject; in particular, a series of experiments conducted by Canadian researchers in the 1960s and 1970s who had concluded that solitary confinement did not induce any change in a prisonerís self-identity or blood pressure and therefore was not demonstrably more stressful than routine prison life. The problem with these and other experiments was that they bore no relationship to the typical situation facing prisoners confined in administrative segregation. The subject of the experiments were volunteers, the periods of confinement were of short duration (less than 10 days) and prisoners could terminate their confinement at any point.

In 1990, Dr. Paul Gendreau, the principal researcher in many of the earlier studies, and a colleague, Dr. James Bonta, published an article entitled "Re-examining the Cruel and Unusual Punishment of Prison Life" ( Law and Human Behaviour, 1990, vol. 14 at 347). In their article, the authors challenged some of the common assertions in what they referred to as the "pains of imprisonment" literature, that imprisonment is inherently detrimental to the humanity of the prisoner, and argued that based on the "scientific literature," many of the asserted detrimental effects, including those of solitary confinement, were over-stated and unsupported. The Bonta and Gendreau review focused on quantitative studies about the effects of imprisonment and excluded "qualitative or phenomenological" studies. These latter categories comprised those studies, like my own, which relied upon personal observation, open-ended interviews and case studies to draw general conclusions. To be included in the Bonta and Gendreau analysis, "a study was required to employ objective measures of the variables of interest and to evaluate the relationship between them by the means of statistical tests" ( Bonta at 349).

Based only upon such studies, Bonta and Gendreau concluded that while there was some evidence that prison crowding may produce changes in blood pressure and self-reported reports of discomfort, "we cannot conclude that high population density is always associated with aggressive behaviour." (Bonta at 353) Likewise, the authors found that there was no evidence that prison had a deleterious effect on the health of prisoners, and in fact, may "have the fortuitous benefit of isolating the offender from a highly risky lifestyle in the community." (at 357) Regarding the effects of long-term incarceration, the authors reviewed various studies in which scores from psychological tests (for example the MMPI) were compared among groups of prisoners who had served varying lengths of time in prison and concluded that "there is little to support the conclusion that long-term imprisonment necessarily has detrimental effects." (at 359)

On the issue of the effects of solitary confinement, the authors, citing the experimental studies done in the 1960ís and 70ís (including Dr. Gendreauís own work), concluded that these studies "have found few detrimental effects for subjects placed in solitary confinements for periods up to ten days . . . Some of the experimental studies even reported beneficial results" (at 360). In contrast to studies that used volunteer subjects, the authors cite a 1967 study that looked at twenty prisoners who were involuntarily placed in solitary confinement for five days which, "using measures such as cognitive and personality tests, language usage and time estimation, . . . found no deleterious effects" (Bonta, p. 361). The authors also referred to a 1982 study that collected data from five prisons in Canada and the United States and concluded that "in general, inmates found the first 72 hours the most difficult but after that they adjusted quite well (at 361). The authors of this last study further concluded that "our data lend no support to the claim that solitary confinement . . . is overwhelmingly aversive, stressful or damaging to the inmates." Bonta and Gendreau were critical of two other studies conducted in 1966 and 1983 which recorded signs of pathology for prisoners incarcerated in solitary for periods of up to a year, on the grounds that "no objective measures or control groups were used." The 1983 study was further criticised because "prisoners were involved in a class action suit against their keepers and the author actively encouraged more disclosure when the inmates were not forthcoming with reports of distress." (at 361)

On the basis of their review of the literature, Bonta and Gendreau concluded:

The real culprit may not necessarily be the condition of solitary per se but the manner in which the inmates have been treated. There is evidence suggesting that this is the basis for most inmate complaints . . . Jackson [in Prisoners of Isolation ] himself acceded to this fact: When inmates are dealt with capriciously by management or individual custodial officers, a psychological stress can be created even in the most humane of prison environments. Therefore, solitary confinement may not be cruel and unusual punishment under the humane and time-limited conditions investigated in experimental studies or in correctional jurisdictions that have well-defined and effectively administered ethical guidelines for its use. We must emphasise that this is not an argument for employing solitary and certainly not for the absurdly lengthy periods as documented by Jackson. (Jackson at 361)

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