location: publications / books / Justice Behind the Walls / Sector 5 / Chapter 2 The Special Handling Units: The Corruption of Correctional Principles / The Second Generation of SHUs

Mr. Eldridge told me that in every cell there was a sprinkler head. Prisoners had experienced these coming on even though there was no smoke or fire and they believed that the guards could turn them on at will. He told me that he often lay awake at night, focusing on that sprinkler, knowing that at any time he could be soaked to the skin and seeing it as a constant symbol of his complete powerlessness.

The architectural design and the operational regime of separation were not the only features that had been built into the new SHU units. After the opening of the new institutions, significant changes had been made in the procedures for transfer and release of prisoners to and from the units. As part of a general policy shift in the mid-1980s to decentralise decision making to give greater autonomy to the regions and in particular to wardens, the National SHU Review Committee was dismantled and decisions relating to transfer to and release from SHUs were delegated to the Regional Deputy Commissioners. Under the former arrangements, regional recommendations were reviewed by the National Committee which brought both a national perspective and, given the presence of independent observers, some external oversight. Furthermore, with the dismantling of the SHU National Committee, prisoners lost the right to make oral representations every six months. The delegation of the admission and releasing authority to the Regional Deputy Commissioners had the result in many cases of lengthening the amount of time a prisoner spent in the SHU. Even though the SHU staff believed that a prisoner was ready for release, that release could be held up for many months if the Deputy Commissioner of the region where the prisoner wished to go was not prepared to accept him. Rory Shayne was one such prisoner. He showed me documents in which he had been recommended for release from the Prince Albert SHU nine months previously. Yet his release was being blocked by an intransigent deputy commissioner. In the absence of the National Committee to break the deadlock, his stay was indefinitely extended. He related to me the effects this had on him and other prisoners in similar situations.

When people come into the SHU they are usually extremely angry. By the time they leave, they are supposed to have become less angry and violent. To be told by the staff here, after waiting for many years, that you are now ready for release, yet you are not released because of inter-regional politics, just builds up again the rage that brought you to the SHU in the first place. (Interview with Rory Shayne, Prince Albert SHU, May 27, 1986)

In 1987, less than a year after my visit to the Prince Albert SHU, there were further changes introduced in the SHU process following a comprehensive revision of the Commissioner's Directives. Remarkably the reference to "Special Handling Units" was removed from the correctional vernacular and replaced by the term "High Maximum Security Institution" (HMSI). The previous Commissioner's Directive specifically dealing with Special Handling Units and the process for transfer to and release from them was rescinded; under the new directives the transfer to a High Maximum Security Institution was incorporated into the general Commissioner's Directive dealing with all other transfers as one part of the overall transfer policy.

Only two features now distinguished a transfer of a prisoner to a High Maximum Security Institution. The first was that the documentation supporting the warden's recommendation for transfer had to be more extensive than that provided to a prisoner in other involuntary transfer situations. The second was that the warden's recommendation and the prisoner's response were reviewed by a Regional High Maximum Security Review Committee which in turn made a recommendation to the Regional Deputy Commissioner. The result was that it was much easier to transfer a prisoner to a "High Maximum Security Institution" than it had been under the previous procedures where the ultimate decision was made by the National SHU Review Committee. In response to an inquiry by the Correctional Investigator as to the reasons for the dissolution of the National Committee and the abolition of the Commissioner's Directive regarding SHUs, the Correctional Service advised him that their position was consistent with their "decentralised management philosophy" and their efforts to "normalise" the Special Handling Unit process ( Annual Report of the Correctional Investigator, 1987-88 [Ottawa: Supply and Services Canada, 1988] at 18). The Correctional Investigator rejoined "that the absence of national policy in this area was an abdication of responsibility and a failure to appreciate the significance a placement in the SHU had on an offender's period of incarceration."

The change in the correctional language represented by "High Maximum Security Institution" was part of a long history of such changes. The relatively recent addition to the penal dictionary of the "Special Handling Unit" proved to be more resistant to change than the CSC expected. High Maximum Security Institutions had a brief strut on the correctional stage and, in a further major policy change in 1990, reverted to their former selves as Special Handling Units. Even during those three years the new term did not take root in the popular language of prisoners or staff. During a second visit to the Prince Albert Institution in 1988, I was told politely by warden that I should not be referring to the institution as a Special Handling Unit; its correct title was HMSI. Just as politely I responded to warden that I had just come into his institution through the general visitor's door (a different entrance from the one he came in through) and the sign clearly stated "Special Handling Unit." Evidently nobody had bothered to change the sign.

In 1990 a new Commissioner's Directive was issued dealing specifically with the now reinstated Special Handling Units. This was heralded by the CSC as a new and major policy shift. The shift was stated to be a necessary consequence of the adoption by the Correctional Service of Canada of its new Mission Statement in 1989. As described in the CSC's own official history of its corporate reorganization in the 1990's, Our Story, the pre-1990 experience with the SHU's was inconsistent with the Mission.

The phases of gradual reintegration existed only on paper. Meaningful activities were limited. These were essentially non-contact prisons. The regime was a repressive one. Control had become the sole watchword.

When the current operation of the Special Handling Unit was examined in light of the Mission, the justifications for the types of controls now practised became questionable. The Mission's first two core values speak to the dignity of individuals, the rights of all members of society, and the recognition that the offender has the potential to live as a law-abiding citizen. It requires that our staff actively encourage and assist offenders to become law-abiding citizens, while existing a reasonable, safe, secure and human control -- control only to the extent that is necessary. The Mission promotes an active intervention ideology in a safe, secure and humane environment. Control, according to our Mission, is best assured through positive interaction between staff and inmates and not by mere reliance on static security. Human relationships are to be the cornerstone of our endeavours. the CSC has committed itself to this course of action. Every policy, every decision, must be looked at in the light of its consistency with the philosophy set out in the Mission.

Clearly, the control philosophy that had evolved in the Special Handling Units was not consistent with the Mission. It was, therefore, unacceptable and had to be changed. The Mission gives a clear indication of the expectations for the way in which control should be exercised in the Special Handling Units. ( Our Story: Organizational Renewal in Federal Corrections, (Jim Vantour, ed. [Ottawa: Correctional Service of Canada, 1991] at 84-85)

Page 2 of 3