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Dorchester -- Renovating the Bastille

The huge walls of Dorchester penitentiary stand on a hill overlooking the surrounding countryside. The view from the main prison gate takes in the sweeping landscape of the rural communities from which in earlier times, when prison rules required all prison guards to live within three miles of the penitentiary, all of its staff were drawn. Even today, the warden lived in a house within 15 minutes of the prison. Although I had heard about the extensive renovations to Dorchester, I had not anticipated the manner in which the Dome of the institution had been transformed from a dreary symbol of the panopticon vision of total control to a bold contemporary interpretation of 19th century gothic architecture. The Dome had been painted in pastel colours with a heavy accent of avocado green on the railings of the staircases. Some of the stoneware had been carefully detailed and highlighted and on one side of the Dome was a huge mural, painted by a local artist, that gave the impression of prisoners literally coming out of the walls, presumably on their way to re-integration into the community. The main cell blocks of the prison which, like the old B.C. Penitentiary, had consisted of multi-tiers of cells with open-faced barred cells, all overlooking the Dome floor, had been completely renovated so that the tiers were now separated from each other and the cells themselves had solid doors on top of which was a glass window to permit light to enter from the corridor. The original cells, which were very small, had been extended by about eighteen inches in the front, although they were still smaller than the cells in modern institutions. The building had been retrofitted so that each cell had electric outlets for TVís, stereos, kettles and razors. On the end of each tier there were spacious common rooms where prisoners could congregate; light flooded into these rooms through the original domed windows.

The only area of the main cell block which had not undergone full modifications was the basement housing the segregation area. Half of that area was now occupied by prisoners who were on parole suspension warrants. Most of these cells were double bunked. The other half of the area was for prisoners serving punitive segregation and those in administrative segregation. The segregation area still retained the original open-faced barred cells although modern electrical outlets had been installed. What was most noticeable was that the segregated prisoners had a lot more personal effects in their cells than at Springhill. I asked the supervisor in charge of the segregation unit why this might be. He had previously worked in the segregation unit at Springhill and said that the philosophy at Springhill was to limit cell effects in segregation, permitting prisoners to select only a few items, the remainder of which were stored while they were in segregation. At Dorchester the policy was to permit the prisoner to have all of his cell effects except for those items which were a security or safety concern. The Dorchester policy was in conformity with the law; Springhillís strained against the law.

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