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The Future of the SHU: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

In 1996, faced with the pending closure of the Prince Albert SHU and the transfer of all remaining SHU prisoners to Quebec, the Correctional Service of Canada established a committee "to review the management of SHU programs and propose new approaches that would more effectively meet the needs of this population." (SHU Program Review Committee's Report, Regional Reception Centre, December 1996 at 4). I obtained a copy of the committee's report during my visit to the Quebec SHU in June 1997 and read it carefully following my visit and interviews with staff and prisoners. The report begins with an acknowledgement that "the Quebec SHU is currently at an historic stage in its development, as in less than six months it will be the only CSC unit devoted to the management of dangerous inmates." The report reviewed the literature on the effectiveness of offender treatment programs and concluded that:

The sources of information about violent offenders unanimously agreed that the objectives of such programs in the SHU level must be specific, realistic and aimed at reducing the incidents of institutional violence rather than tackling the problem from the perspective of criminogenic factors . . . According to the clinicians, there is relative consensus on the types of treatment that must be provided for violent offenders. These treatments involve: anger management, problem-solving and soul searching of beliefs about aggressiveness . . . Overall, on a theoretical level, the literature confirms the importance of focusing on anger management and impulsiveness and the acquisition of life skills for violent offenders, as these deficiencies often characterise offenders inclined towards gratuitous violence. (at 16-7)

In the context of delivering programs in the SHU, the report acknowledged that the problems which had been encountered in the past related to the nature of both the prisoner population and the environment. There was the division of the population into incompatible sub-groups of regular population, protection population, voluntary and involuntary administrative segregation, assessment population; this coupled with the further division within regular population between those who participate and those who refuse to participate in programs, superimposed upon the linguistic division of francophone and anglophone, had made it difficult to create compatible groups of individuals to form program groups.

The environmental problems identified by the report included the limitation on available program spaces with the only choices being the chapel and the two classrooms in the school. The report also observed that "after the religious and school activities are over, there is almost no time left for offering other programs in these spaces." However, the critical question raised in the report was the compatibility of the SHU itself with a programming philosophy:

We have to wonder whether the high security context does not create an environment that is unfavourable to program delivery. When asked about this, the inmates said that they had the impression of living in an environment that promoted mainly distrust and hatred; can we be surprised that they are not very inclined to soul searching when they are mainly pre-occupied with their physical and psychological survival?

The report, having identified this critical issue, immediately puts it to one side and proceeds to make a number of recommendations which all assume that programming can be effective in the SHU environment. The first and most important recommendation is that a prisoner's stay in the SHU should be reorganised according to a three phase principle in which the first phase remains assessment, the second phase consists of programs and the third phase is pre-release from the SHU. The report acknowledges that in advocating a phased approach to the SHU this would be a "return to the past" but it suggests its approach to phases would be "modified, if not improved" (at 4). The principal difference identified in the new phases is that with the exception of the assessment phase, which would remain as it is under the current procedures, the following two phases would be of indefinite duration depending upon the prisoner's demonstration of motivation to improve himself by participating in his correctional plan.

My first reading of this recommendation left me shocked in its complete disregard of the historical failure of the first attempt at a phase program. Not surprisingly, the literature survey included as an appendix in the report makes no reference to Prisoners of Isolation, the reports of the Correctional Investigator nor any other critical literature on the failure of the SHU's to live up to their officially proclaimed objectives. As I read further into the report, I became incensed at not only the disregard of history but at also the unwillingness to recognise the continuing failure of the S.H.U.'s operational reality to live up to official policy. This could not be more clearly illustrated than by the report's description of the assessment phase which it proposes should remain unchanged:

While he is being assessed, the inmate will be observed by the various case workers who need to discuss his case, namely: the case management officer, the psychologist, the CO-I and CO-II, the psychiatrist (if necessary), the cell-block co-ordinator and any other case worker who sees him during the assessment period.

In order to be completely available to the case workers during the assessment phase, the inmates are not entitled to work, other than operating needs. Neither do they participate in activities or programs. In fact, they are entitled to one hour of outside exercise per day only. (at 42)

Clearly this description is intended to convey the impression that the ninety day assessment period is one of intensive assessment with multiple interactions between the prisoner and the assessing staff. The reality could not be further from this picture. All of the prisoners I interviewed saw their case management officer and the psychologist on very few occasions, typically separated by months rather than weeks and their ultimate assessments were primarily based upon previously documented file material.

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