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An Appeal to "Slumbering Humanity"

My position on the need for independent adjudication also received powerful reinforcement from a visit to Kingston Penitentiary that had been arranged for members on the evening before the Commissioner’s Forum in May 1998. Most of the forum members had never set foot inside a prison. We were met at the front gate by the warden, Monty Bourke, who set out the penitentiary’s history from its opening in 1835; part of that history included the terrible events that took place within the walls in the late 1840s, when children as young as eleven were barbarously flogged for whispering to each other in violation of the rule of silence. The penitentiary’s massive front gate is relieved by a portico of limestone columns which, as one member of the Forum observed, would not be out of place at the entrance to a major bank. However, these recently restored columns led not to the vaults of power but to the places of confinement of the powerless. They heralded not privilege but pain.

The visit began at seven in the evening. After dinner in the officers’ mess, we broke into small groups and were taken to different areas of the penitentiary. I was a part of a group guided by the warden, which included Commissioner Ingstrup, Chief Justice Edward Bayda of the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal, Pamela Wallin (one of Canada’s most respected TV journalists), and Graham Stewart, the Executive Director of the John Howard Society of Canada. At around 9:00 p.m. we arrived in one of the two segregation areas. Built in 1958, it is the most recent addition to the penitentiary. It consists of a single range of cells facing each other, into which little natural light enters. The cells have double doors: an inner door of bars and an outer door of 4-inch solid oak with a food slot. As recently as the 1980s, the oak doors would be closed after suppertime, completely isolating the prisoners from human contact. Those doors are now left open, but even so the cells are like dark caverns. High on the back wall of each cell are a light and an observation window through which the staff, patrolling on an elevated catwalk behind the cells, can observe the prisoners. The flicker of a television set in one of the cells, depicting cartoon characters, only intensified the hideous nature of this most modern of Kingston’s chambers of punishment. The members of the Forum were visibly shocked at what we saw. The staff member in charge advised us that most prisoners did not spend long in this unit, although he acknowledged that some prisoners were quite psychologically disturbed. One prisoner motioned to Graham Stewart and me as we walked down the range. His cell -- the observation cell -- was completely devoid of personal effects. He told us he had been there for four months and was due to be released to the street within the next four months. He was serving a three-year term for robbery and was extremely worried about facing life in the community after his extended period in the segregation unit. The staff later told us this man was a behavioural problem and had been setting fires in his cell in the general population.

At the end of our tour of Kingston, Warden Bourke gave each member of the Forum a binder containing a profile of the prisoners in the institution, together with a newsletter that is distributed to all staff. Under the heading "Historical Fact," the newsletter noted that in May of 1842, 156 years before our visit, Charles Dickens had visited Kingston Penitentiary as part of his tour of North America. Although impressed by Kingston, which he described as "an admirable jail, well and wisely governed" -- a characterization he likely would not have made a few years later, when the savage regime of Warden Smith held sway -- Dickens recorded in his American Notes his indictment of solitary confinement. His words appear at the beginning of my book Prisoners of Isolation, and they were read in court in the 1975 challenge to the conditions in the solitary confinement unit in the B.C. Penitentiary.

I hold this slow and daily hampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body; and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh, because its wounds are not on the surface and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore, I denounce it as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused to stay. (Charles Dickens, American Notes for General Circulation [London: Chapman and Hall, 1842] at 119-20)

At next day’s meeting, I expressed to the Forum my deep disappointment that Commissioner Ingstrup had not seen fit to initiate the experiment with independent adjudication of segregation decisions. I suggested that the conditions we had seen in the segregation unit the evening before were fully deserving of Dickens’ indictment, and I urged the commissioner, on behalf of "slumbering humanity," to take immediate measures to close the dungeon at Kingston. Mr. Ingstrup advised us that he had been sufficiently shocked by what he saw to ask Warden Bourke for an action plan for closing the unit. A year later, the unit was closed permanently.

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Segregation Unit, Kingston Penitentiary