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Mission Institution -- Segregation: The Cutting Edge, The Hurting Edge

The discussions of the Task Force with management and staff at Mission Institution on September 5, 1996, highlighted the themes of "operational pragmatism" and the lack of any organisational commitment to education and training in the law. During a meeting with union representatives, both of whom had worked in the segregation unit at Mission, one as a CO-II and the other as a correctional supervisor, they were asked whether there were days when prisoners did not get the one hour exercise required by law. The segregation unit at Mission was originally designed for a maximum of eight prisoners and now had seven of those of cells double bunked (the only one which was not was the observation cell). Although the segregation count the day of the Task Force visit was eight prisoners, the union representatives said that a few months before when they were on shift the numbers fluctuated between 10 and 15. When the numbers got that high it became very difficult to comply with all the shift requirements. The window within which to complete the dayís activities was from seven in the morning until two in the afternoon. After two oíclock the prisoners were locked in their cells and any out of cell movement required bringing in an additional staff member. When the count was high and there were other activities going on, such as a Segregation Review Board hearing or escorts of prisoners for visits, it became impossible for everybody to exercise. What the staff would then do was to give the prisoners who had not had exercise on one day priority the next day. The point was also made that in order to try and give everyone exercise, prisoners were often placed in the small exercise yard three or four at a time which compromised safety concerns. Although there was now a dedicated correctional supervisor for the segregation unit, there were no dedicated staff and correctional officers had one week rotations in the unit and had to learn the rules and standing orders on the job.

The union representatives were also questioned about the kind of training they had received. They were quite satisfied with the training that had taken place in the handling of weapons and gas, CPR, and emergency response procedures. However, they had received no training at all in the law. They were asked whether they had read the Corrections and Conditional Release Act or the Regulations and they frankly admitted they had not.

At the afternoon debriefing, Ken Peterson, the warden of Mission, had some penetrating comments on the priority the CSC gave to training staff with respect to their lawful obligations. Contrasting the opportunities for staff training and retraining in the handling of weapons with the handling of the law, he asked, "What do you use the most as a correctional administrator or staff member, a weapon or the law? What do you fire the most in your day to day work?"

Mr. Peterson evocatively referred to segregation as "the cutting edge, the hurting edge of the law." That characterization was based upon his own experiences in talking with prisoners in his capacity as former assistant warden of the B.C. Penitentiary in the days of the "Penthouse" and as deputy warden and acting warden at Kent Institution. Several prisoners whom I have interviewed, who had served extended periods in the "Penthouse," informed me that Mr. Peterson had come up to the unit and spoken with them and was one of the few institutional people who seemed to understand the despair and hopelessness caused by their extended segregation. Mr. Petersonís description of "the cutting edge, the hurting edge" comes much closer to the way in which prisoners understand the segregation experience than Dr. Bonta and Dr. Gendreauís "scientific" conclusions that segregation has no demonstrable negative effects.

In an earlier interview with Mr. Peterson addressing the significant changes within the Service over the past 25 years, he had commented on the proliferation of law, regulations and administrative directives which now controlled decision making within the prison. Madam Justice Arbour in her report had observed that the Serviceís tendency to produce great volumes of policy directives had the unintended result of obscuring, rather than clarifying, legal requirements. Ken Peterson made a similar observation, drawing an analogy with the childrenís game of hopscotch.

In hopscotch you have to advance by jumping from side to side on one leg making sure you do not touch the lines. The CCRA and all those volumes of Commissionerís Directives mark the lines which you must not touch if you want to play the game. Now, I have no difficulty walking a block if I can walk on my own two feet and use my own judgement about where Iím going, but if you tell me I have to hop on one leg and play hopscotch for that whole block, by the time I reach the end of the block Iím going to be pretty exhausted.

In the course of that interview Mr. Peterson also commented on the vital distinction between the letter and the spirit of the law. In his dealings with prisoners he had never found them to be particularly impressed with justifications for actions which relied upon statements such as "I have to do this because thatís what the law requires." He felt that when he sat down with a prisoner and sought to justify a decision on a personal basis by explaining why he had come to that decision, he was more likely to convince that prisoner that his rights and dignity had been respected. In Warden Petersonís view, "Respecting dignity goes a lot further in most prisonersí minds than the formal letter of the law."

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