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The Second Generation of SHUs

In 1984 the CSC opened two new Special Handling Units, one in Ste.-Anne-des-Plaines, Quebec, and the other in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, and the old units were closed. The new units were specifically designed as Special Handling Units; the Quebec institution was built on the penitentiary reserve adjacent to other federal institutions; the Prince Albert unit was built as a self-contained unit within the walls of the Saskatchewan Penitentiary. In May 1986 I spent several days at the Prince Albert SHU where I toured the facilities and interviewed a number of prisoners who had served time both in Millhaven and the CDC units. The Prince Albert SHU had five cell blocks radiating off a central dome-controlled area. In each block there were 16 cells. The significant improvement in the Prince Albert SHU was in the size of the prisoners' cells, which were much bigger than those in the old SHUs at Millhaven and the CDC and indeed in any segregation unit. The cell furnishings were standard segregation ones in the form of stainless steel toilets, steel bed frames suspended from the wall, small steel desks and open cupboards for personal effects. The cells had large exterior windows and the solid steel doors were relieved by a small window and a food slot. At the head of each cell block, facing onto the dome area, there was a common room with table and chairs, a television and a washer and dryer. Leading off from the common room were a series of three small and one larger exercise yards. The yards were concrete and encircled with chain link fences topped with barbed wire. The new unit also had a properly equipped gymnasium and weight room, and a series of areas designated for the delivery of programs.

The distinguishing feature of the new SHUs, both as a matter of architectural design and operational routine, was that of separation of staff from prisoners and the pervasive influence of security and surveillance. I started my tour in the Prince Albert SHU by walking through the upper galleries which contained the observation and gunports through which staff can monitor every part of the unit in which prisoners can congregate. These galleries overlooked the yard areas, the gym, the weight room, the program areas, the health unit, the dome area, the common rooms, and the corridors adjacent to the five cell blocks. In addition, there were glass windows in the floor through which the guards could look into the showers at the end of each tier as well as the shower area next to the gym. The architects of the new SHUs had taken to heart the panopticon vision of Jeremy Bentham in laying out the observation galleries to permit total surveillance of prisoner activity.

Downstairs in the program areas, an equally pervasive theme was that of separation. During my tour I was advised that there was a variety of programs available to prisoners in phases two and three. These included group therapy led by a psychologist from Saskatchewan Penitentiary who worked part-time at the SHU, a hobby work and painting program taught by an instructor who came in from the outside community once a week, and an educational program. In addition, for Aboriginal prisoners an Elder was available. To participate in programs prisoners would be assembled in small groups in one of several rooms. Their instructors delivered the program in a separate space divided from the prisoners by a floor to ceiling wall, the middle section of which consisted of glass panels so that the prisoners could be at all times observed by the staff. It was explained to me that the design of this area was such that communication between the staff and the prisoners was intended to be conducted through an electronic communication system. However, this had never functioned properly and this had necessitated that the bottom part of one of the glass panels be removed and replaced with a steel grill. It was through this grill that communication between staff and prisoners took place and any documents were exchanged.

The group therapy conducted by the psychologist was held in an adjacent room in which the methods of communication were even more impoverished. In this room the conversation between the psychologist and the group took place through a small two foot square opening in a solid wall. The prisoners' side of the opening was obstructed by steel bars and the staff side was protected by a steel door which was opened for the purposes of conversation and the passage of documents. I was told that this was also the area in which the Aboriginal Elder communicated with those who sought his advice and counsel. It would be difficult to conceive of a more effective barrier to communication than the medieval arrangements in this space. This was readily acknowledged by the staff; they pointed out that the original design had been only intended to facilitate the passage of documents and other materials and not to be a conduit for delivery of programs. Renovations were later made to improve the situation.

Next to this area was the space which had been designed specifically for the purposes of the educational program. There were two classrooms separated by glass from the teacher's area. As originally conceived, the teaching was to be done face-to-face, albeit separated by the physical barrier. However, since all prisoners in the SHU had televisions in their cell and there was a closed circuit network, the decision had been that the teacher would provide the lessons by broadcasting them over the closed circuit system. The classrooms therefore were only used for the purposes of initial interviews or for distributing materials.

The same theme of separation carried through to the areas in which prisoners met with either staff or outside visitors. The principal area of communication was a series of booths close to the main entry into the unit. The prisoner was separated from the visitor by a Plexiglas screen and all communication took place by telephone. In one of these booths a slot had been created in the middle of the glass screen through which documents could be passed. It is this booth which was designated for the use of lawyers or other professional visitors. Some of the interviews between prisoners and staff also took place in this booth.

In my interviews with prisoners I was quickly made aware that from their perspective the most oppressive feature of the new SHU was its obsession with security and the way in which any other consideration, including human dignity, was subordinated to this. Every prisoner focused on the requirement that prisoners must always be handcuffed whenever they were escorted off their range. This involved a ritual whereby the prisoner had to put his hands through the slot in his cell door, be handcuffed, bring his hands back through the slot, and then be escorted by two or three guards off the range; on arriving at his destination the whole procedure would then be repeated in reverse. This, coupled with the constant pat down searching, meant that the prisoners' body was never his own for more than a few hours at a time. One prisoner, Jim Eldridge, in contrasting Millhaven with Prince Albert, told me:

At Millhaven, for all its faults, at least we would feel that we were ourselves. Here you feel you have lost your identity and all control over your life. (Interview with Jim Eldridge, Prince Albert SHU, May 27, 1986)

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