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Greyhound Therapy with a Vengeance

One of the prisoners I interviewed during my June 1997 visit to the Quebec SHU was Tyrone Swindle. Mr. Swindle was transferred to the Special Handling Unit for assessment in February 1997, following a major disturbance at Millhaven Institution during the course of which the cells on several ranges were badly damaged. A decision was made to involuntarily transfer a large number of prisoners on an emergency basis to the SHU's. Over twenty prisoners were sent to the Quebec SHU and another dozen to Prince Albert. Mr. Swindle was one of those sent to Quebec. At the time of my interview Mr. Swindle had been in the SHU for four and half months, had completed the assessment process and had recently received a recommendation from the National SHU Review Committee that he be not admitted but returned to Millhaven. During the whole of that time he had remained on the assessment range and had been on 23 hour lock up. He, like a number of the other prisoners, had received very little in the way of cell effects, having been told that most of his effects had been damaged during the disturbance in Millhaven. Therefore, his four and a half months had been unrelieved by the presence of a TV or stereo. His 23 hour lock up had also been unrelieved by any visit from his wife and two small children. Because the only visiting possible in the SHU was a screened visit, he had not wanted to put his family through the trial of driving to Montreal in order to spend a few hours looking at him behind a glass barrier and talking on the intercom. His only contact therefore with his family was by phone under the very restrictive SHU regime whereby prisoners are allowed only two phone calls a month for non-legal purposes.

I asked Mr. Swindle to explain, from his perspective, what was it about conditions in Millhaven that had led to the disturbance, which in turn had triggered his transfer to the SHU:

Number one was the food. Disgusting. I understand we're in prison but I always had the view though that I was sent to prison and that is my punishment. Being taken out of society is my punishment. Now to be sent to prison and then punished further is almost like double jeopardy. Anyway, the food was uneatable. I know a lot of guys may come in and say this, but we weren't asking for steak and lobster. All we were asking for was nutritious food with vitamins. I may have been locked up for 23 hours while I've been here but at least they serve you nutritious food. In the four and a half months here, I've actually gained twelve pounds. When some guys came here from Millhaven later on, they looked at us and said "Whoa, are they giving you steroids?." At Millhaven the food was cooked in the kitchen which was in the Regional Reception Centre and it was brought over to our ranges in a cart to a little servery and by the time we got it was never hot. There was also a problem with providing special diets, like religious diets for Muslims and medical diets for guys who were diabetics.

The second problem was that there were no programs in Millhaven or opportunities for social development. In the eighteen months I was there, there was not even one social. The guys would suggest ideas for bringing people in from the community and they would always be shot down. The Inmate Committee would have meetings with the warden who would approve something but then the Union [the Public Service Alliance of Canada] would just shoot it down and nothing happened. It was like the Union was running the place.

The third thing was the lock downs which sometimes would go on for two months at a time. I went a month without a shower. Another thing was that there were no jobs and the ones they had were just make-work. Like you'd have a corridor ten yards long and they'd split the job of unit cleaner in to two so two guys would be responsible for what was not even a proper job for one person. Guys therefore spent most of their time in their cell. It wasn't much different from being in the SHU. So it was an accumulation of all these things and in the end the frustration got too much. (Interview with Tyrone Swindle, Quebec SHU, June 17, 1997).

After their emergency transfer to the Special Handling Unit, the prisoners involved in the Millhaven disturbance contacted the Correctional Investigator challenging the legitimacy and legality of the transfers, on the ground that they did not meet the criteria of dangerous offenders set out in the Commissioner's Directive. The Correctional Investigator reviewed the involuntary transfer packages for all the men transferred and raised a number of concerns with the Commissioner's office. The first concern was that the progress summary in every package contained the same boiler plate language to the effect that:

Your statements, actions and behaviours towards staff were threatening and displayed a propensity for serious violence. This resulted in a reasonable concern for the safety of staff and other offenders at Millhaven Institution. (Letter from the Office of the Correctional Investigator to the Assistant Commissioner, Corporate Development, April 7, 1997)

The Correctional Investigator pointed out that while in some cases the transfer package contained observations and offence reports which could arguably substantiate the above mentioned quote, in the case of eleven prisoners, the packages were "completely void of any information which suggests that these inmates contributed "statements, actions and behaviours towards staff which were threatening and displayed a propensity for serious violence." The Correctional Investigator observed that while the packages for these eleven prisoners contained information that they destroyed government property, there was no other information which differentiated them from the rest of the prisoners housed in the maximum security range at Millhaven institution. He further pointed out that following the other major disturbance which had occurred the previous year at Drumheller institution, no prisoners were sent to the Special Handling Unit for assessment, despite the fact that there was extensive damage done to the institution, dozens of gunshots were fired and staff had to use emergency measures to extract themselves from the units. While conceding "the state of affairs at Millhaven during this period may have been intolerable and that there may have been in some cases, legitimate concerns for the safety of staff, it is our position that in the [11] cases the information contained in the packages falls far short in substantiating the transfers."

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