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location: publications / books / Justice Behind the Walls / Sector 4 / Chapter 3 The Arbour Report: The Indictment of a System / The Effects of Segregation -- The Pains of Imprisonment versus Behavioural Deep Freeze

At the end of their article, Drs. Bonta and Gendreau aimed what I would term a broadside against the pains of imprisonment literature (including Prisoners of Isolation ):

When it comes to scholarly inquiry in the field of criminal justice, a pernicious tendency has been to invoke rhetoric over reality and affirm ideology over respect for empirical evidence . . . If we are to make progress in understanding what it is our prisons do to inmates, then we must respect the available evidence. We do not discount the importance of phenomenology in assessing prison life; this line of inquiry does provide valuable insight. But, if we stray too far from the epistemic values that are crucial to a vigorous social science, then we run the risk of making disastrous policy decisions. Therefore, if we are to have a more constructive agenda, we must face the fact that simplistic notions of the "pains of imprisonment" simply will not be instructive and will mitigate against the inmates well-being.

The facts are that long-term imprisonment and specific conditions of confinement such as solitary, under limiting and humane conditions, fail to show any sort of profound detrimental effects. (Bonta at 364)

Following the publication of the Bonta and Gendreau article, Professor Julian Roberts and myself published a response. In Boats Against the Current: a Note on the Effects of Imprisonment we wrote:

The authors [Bonta and Gendreau] lament what they refer to as "the pernicious tendency to invoke rhetoric over reality;" yet their own conclusions reflect a disregard for the reality they admire, and they embrace the very rhetoric they disdain. They conclude that "the real culprit may not necessarily be the condition of solitary per se but the manner in which inmates have been treated." Research on the Canadian federal correctional regime regarding administrative segregation reveals that over the last twenty years period there have been extensive changes in federal administrative policy and rules. The official "rhetoric" for the use of administrative segregation speaks of Bonta and Gendreauís "well-defined and effectively administered ethical guidelines for its use." The reality as reflected in these studies of what actually happens in Canadian prisons is that administrative segregation continues to be applied in an arbitrary manner that violates fundamental principles of justice. By defining empirical research in such a way as to exclude studies such as these, Bonta and Gendreau effectively reduce the horizon of empirical research relevant to the evaluation of solitary confinement to studies that are, in effect, quite irrelevant to the real-life experience of prisoners. ((1991), 15 Law and Human Behaviour, vol., 15, 557 at 561)

We also criticised the limitations that the Bonta and Gendreau approach to relevant research placed upon understanding the real-life impact of imprisonment in other areas. The example we gave was from a case study of one of my clients, Ted Steele, whose imprisonment for 37 years was held by the Supreme Court of Canada to constitute "cruel and unusual punishment." ( Steele v. Warden of Mountain Institution (1989), 72 C.R. (3d) 5 ):

One of us recently represented a man released from prison after serving thirty-seven years under an indeterminate sentence. He was released on the grounds that his continued imprisonment constituted cruel and unusual punishment. From the evidence presented to the courts, this man, measured by Bonta and Gendreauís objective indices of negative effects of imprisonment -- "behaviours which threatened the physical welfare of the offender (e.g., aggressive behaviour, suicide) . . . psychological stress levels (e.g., elevated blood pressure) and psychological stress (e.g., depression)" -- is in better shape after imprisonment. According to the Bonta and Gendreau approach to the scientific measurement of long-term imprisonment, there is therefore nothing cruel or unusual about thirty seven years in prison.

It would be a salutary exercise in scientific humility for Bonta and Gendreau to put aside their "objective measures" and to consider the effects of such a period of imprisonment in the manner in which it was described by the Supreme Court of Canada. In the words of Mr. Justice Cory: "The period of incarceration has been long indeed . . . during his incarceration, governments have changed, wars have begun and ended and a generation has grown to maturity." Understanding the negative impact of thirty seven years of imprisonment on Mr. Steele requires an acknowledgement that he finds himself separated by an unbridgeable gap of social experience from his peers in the free community. The generation of free men and women with whom he lost contact thirty-seven years earlier are now thinking about retirement. For his part, Mr. Steele has to think about starting a new life. While his peers reap the rewards associated with parenthood (and grandparenthood), he must confront the isolation accumulated over 37 years of separation from society. Bonta and Gendreau would argue that this is to confuse rhetoric with science. We would argue that their approach substitutes a spurious objectivity for the human dimension of punishment as it is experienced by prisoners. (at 558-9)

The extent to which Dr. Bonta and Dr. Gendreauís research has influenced the Correctional Service of Canada is reflected in the materials which are used as part of the training for Correctional Service staff and managers. For example, in the Risk Assessment course manual, the following statements appear:

The "pains of imprisonment" literature primarily reflects the casual observation, personal experiences presented in the form of case studies, and rhetorical description that is highly theoretical, emotional, and often political. Not surprisingly, this literature focuses on the deprivations of prison life, threats of physical violence in the form of assaults, murder, self-mutilation, suicide and on deterioration in mental health . . .

Without denying the "pains of imprisonment," reviews of the systematic quantitative research literature on the effects of incarceration by James Bonta and Paul Gendreau . . . place the issue of prison as "setting" firmly within an informed social psychological framework: there is no evidence that segregation, solitary confinement, long term incarceration have a generally negative or a generally positive impact on health, psychological functioning or criminal propensity. (Correctional Service of Canada, Risk Assessment Course, Participants Manual, 1 October 1994, section 6 at 13)

Significantly, at the end of this section of the manual there is extensive reference to the articles of Dr. Bonta and Dr. Gendreau. Noticeably absent is any reference to the response to their 1991 article by Dr. Roberts and myself or to any other literature which suggests that solitary confinement and segregation have detrimental effects. In other words, the official position of the Correctional Service of Canada, as it is reflected in the training materials which have received extensive circulation throughout the country amongst staff and administrators, is that segregation is a neutral event in the life of a prisoner from the perspective of psychological and criminogenic consequences.

In Phase II of the Arbour inquiry the relevant literature, including the Bonta and Gendreau article and the response of Dr. Roberts and myself, was reviewed and Madam Justice Arbour came to these conclusions on the debate regarding the effects of segregation:

There is a small body of research, much of which has been generated in Canada, which asserts that "long term imprisonment and specific conditions of confinement such as solitary, under limiting and humane conditions, fail to show any sort of profound detrimental effects" (Bonta and Gendreau). This research is of little utility in evaluating the effects of solitary confinement as it is currently administered in penitentiaries, particularly on women. Virtually all of the studies which claim to have found no negative effects of segregation have been carried out on male volunteers, often undergraduate college students. Studies carried out in the prison context employed volunteer male inmates. These volunteers knew the specific length of time they would be held in segregation (usually for between four and seven days) and the specific conditions under which they would be held. Inmates with histories of psychiatric, behavioural or medical problems were screened out of the research. In addition, volunteers were told that they would be released if they changed their minds, or began to suffer serious negative effects. None of the studies used women.

In contrast, there is a body of clinical literature which supports the view that the effects of long-term segregation on prisoners are deleterious to their mental health. Grassian concluded from his research on inmates that "rigidly imposed solitary confinement may have substantial psychopathological effects and . . . these effects may form a clinically distinguishable syndrome." In that study, he found the inmates suffering from, among other things, perceptual distortions such as hallucinations, affective disturbances such as massive anxiety, difficulties thinking, disturbances in thought content, problems with impulse control and rapid subsistence of symptoms on termination of isolation. Similarly, Benjamin and Lux found evidence, from the experience of prisoners and prison psychologists, of damage in the form of cognitive impairment (e.g. concentration, memory, hallucinations) and emotional impairment (feelings of helplessness, depression, rage and self-destructiveness) as a result of detention in solitary confinement.

All this is consistent with my previous findings, as well as with many of the views that were expressed during Phase II of the proceedings.

A number of studies have noted the additional impact of the treatment of inmates while in segregation. These include negative interaction with staff, the frequent violation of the rules and regulations governing detention in segregation, and the uncertainty of release for inmates held in administrative segregation. The findings that I made earlier support the conclusion that prolonged segregation is a devastating experience, particularly when its duration is unknown at the outset and when the inmate feels that she has little control over it . . .

The use of segregation by the Correctional Service for inmates in distress, including those who are at risk of self-injury or suicide, is also problematic. The forced isolation of individuals from their social and physical supports, and human contact, is a profound form of deprivation. It can only heighten feelings of desperation and anxiety and situations of despair and high-need. (Arbour at 186-7, emphasis added)

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