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The New Prisons of Isolation

In 1894 a newly constructed cell block at Kingston Penitentiary, given the chilling but compellingly appropriate name "the Prison of Isolation," received its first prisoners. Those eligible for transfer to this institution -- Canada's first super-maximum penitentiary -- were convicts found to be vicious, those who persisted in disobedience to the rules and those found to exercise a pernicious influence on their fellow convicts. The Prison of Isolation remained in sporadic use until the early 1920s when, owing to a lack of accommodation in the general population of Kingston Institution, the cells were divided and it became Kingston's east cell block.

Over half a century later, in 1977, the Special Handling Units -- Canada's new 'prisons of isolation' -- were opened at Millhaven Institution in Ontario and the Correctional Development Centre in Quebec. The theory behind the Special Handling Unit concept was that prisoners who would have previously been placed in long-term administrative segregation, and who were regarded as particularly dangerous in terms of their being a serious threat to staff or other inmates, would be sent to these units. There they would participate in a specially designed phased program, in which they would earn increased privileges, dependent upon their demonstration of acceptable behaviour, before being returned to the general population of a maximum security institution. The original idea, as set out in a special study commissioned by the Solicitor General (The Vantour-McReynolds Report), was that new institutions would be built especially for this purpose. The Vantour-McReynolds model envisioned three phases characterised as "assessment and orientation," "self-awareness" and "individual demonstration." Prisoners would be organized in groups of no more than seven people, and work with a case management team comprising psychologists, a part-time psychiatrist, a case manager, corrections officers and other members as required. Each group of seven would be kept separate from other groups; to accomplish this separation, the physical facility was to be designed around inter-relating spaces called "envelopes," defined as "a space surrounded by a security physical barrier through which total control of access and egress can be exercised." (Jackson, Prisoners of Isolation at 153). The report described program activities, including one-to-one encounters between the prisoners and staff, group encounters between prisoners and staff, active and passive recreation, visiting, and academic or vocational development, and described the graduated nature of prisoners' privileges as they moved from phase to phase. It was unabashedly based upon a behavioural modification theory of corrections.

Even though there were no existing facilities which even came close to the Vantour-McReynolds model, the federal government decided to fast-track the announcement of the new Special Handling Units in 1977 as part of the political trade-off in the abolition of the death penalty. Along with the introduction of life sentences with a minimum 25 years before parole for first degree murderers, the government announced that such prisoners would be confined in the new SHUs. This was quite contrary to the theory behind the new units which were intended to be only for those who had demonstrated dangerousness while under sentence. It was therefore political considerations rather than correctional principles which laid the foundation for a new generation of super-maximum security.

In Prisoners of Isolation I described the regimes in the two units hastily established at Millhaven and the Correctional Development Centre, and the enormous gulf between the correctional rhetoric underlying the units and the correctional reality surrounding life within them. According to the rhetoric, what distinguished these new units from the old-style segregation units was that prisoners would spend far more time out of their cells, in an environment in which, while safety and security were paramount, there would be intensive programming and professional support to enable each prisoner to move through the phases at a rate determined by his own demonstrated ability. My observation of the actual operation of the units between 1980 and 1982 revealed that there were no programs, intensive or otherwise, at either unit. The phase program offered only limited incentives for improvement in behaviour. Overall the regime was so oppressive that prisoners saw little difference between the new units and the segregation units from which they had come. This was my description of the Millhaven SHU based on my visit in August, 1980:

The cells in the SHU are the same size as all others in the penitentiary, six feet by ten feet. The walls of the SHU cells are lined with steel, and the outside windows, which in the normal population cells are wired glass, are covered with steel slats. These slats restrict the natural light coming into the cell and impede the prisoner's view out of it. Each cell has a solid steel door with a five inch peephole window. Inside the cell there is a steel bed, a steel desk-chair combination, a sink-toilet combination, and, except for the cells of phase one prisoners, a television set. On range 2-F there is a 'recreation area.' Institutional documents subdivide this area into the 'hobby craft' room, the 'music' room, the 'library' room, the 'tutoring' room, and the 'gym.' In fact, these areas are cells, some of which have had the connecting walls removed. At the time of my visit in August 1980, the library was a cell furnished with an empty book case, the music room was a cell with a shelf on which a single guitar rested, the gym was a double cell equipped with a punching bag and exerciser. There was also what was called a common room, which contained a television and in which movies were shown. Prisoners were permitted to gather in the common room in small groups . . . Interviews with institutional staff, parole officers and lawyers were held in two special 'interview rooms' inside the SHU. These rooms were really Plexiglas cages with steel doors and remote control locks. The prisoner was separated from the interviewer by a Plexiglas barrier in the middle of which was a small opening covered by a thick steel grill. The interview was conducted through the grill. The movement of prisoners within the SHU was strictly controlled. Only one prisoner was allowed out of his cell at a time on any floor, and was always accompanied by at least two guards. (at 164-5)

Prisoners in the Millhaven SHU were confined in phase one for the first 30 days after their admission. During this time they were locked up for 23 hours a day with an hour for exercise, replicating the segregation regime. In phases two and three prisoners were permitted to have television sets in their cells and to have one or two hours of exercise in the yard daily. In addition, in phase two they were permitted to spend four hours in the common room every other evening; in phase three the time was increased to four hours every evening.

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