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The State of Corrections in Canada's Only Special Handling Unit

The last prisoner was transferred out of the Prince Albert SHU in October 1997. The 1997-98 Annual Report of the National Review Committee and a 1998 audit therefore reflected the first focussed attention exclusively on the Quebec SHU. Compared to the preceding years, the most significant improvement recorded was in the compliance with the time frames for completion of the assessment process. As I have previously indicated, in 1995-6 the number of cases that were not reviewed within the required time frame of 120 days was 41% and in 1996-7 23%. As of March 31, 1998, non-compliance was down to only 3% (2 of 73). The 1998 audit found that of 16 cases reviewed, although in five of these the three month time frame for the assessment was exceeded by two weeks or less, the decision by the National Review Committee was always made within the four months from the date the prisoner was transferred to the SHU. (Annual Review of the National Review Committee, 1997-98, p. 16: Report on the Audit of the Special Handling Unit, May 1998)

The closure of the Prairies SHU had the predictable result of reducing the overall number of prisoners confined in a SHU. In 1994, the prisoner population was 122; in 1995, 113; in 1996, 91; in 1997, 115; and in 1998 it was 65. The increase between 1996 and 1997 reflected the large-scale transfer of the 35 prisoners from Millhaven Institution in February 1997, the great majority of whom were not admitted after the assessment process. As the 1997-8 Annual Report observed, if those prisoners were not taken into account the year end population as of March 31, 1997 would have been 80 prisoners, reflecting the yearly decrease in the SHU population to its low point in 1998.

But if progress had been made in compliance with time frames and in the reduction of the overall SHU population, the same could not be said for what was supposed to lie at the heart of the justification for the SHU -- its capacity to provide programming for especially dangerous prisoners to facilitate their reintegration back into a maximum security population. Although there were a number of additional programs added to the SHU menu, including one for sex offenders and one for substance abuse for Aboriginal offenders, and one extra room was added to the severely limited program space, the net result of these changes in terms of the level of program participation was negligible. The 1998 audit explained why:

There is still a large proportion of the SHU population that refuses all intervention, particularly programs. Within the current population, there are two units that house such inmates. At the time of the audit, there were twenty-two inmates assigned to these two units, representing approximately one third of the population. In addition, another third of the inmates cannot participate in group programs due to their protective custody or administrative segregation status or numerous incompatibles in the population. As a result, there is only a small proportion of the SHU population that is willing and able to attend group programs. This poses a number of problems:

  • Interviewees [program staff] report that although all programs are available in both languages, it is often difficult to identify enough participants to form a larger enough group in one language or the other. For example, the sex offender program has only been offered in French to date.
  • The relational skills and sex offender programs must be delivered in a group setting (i.e. more than two participants). Therefore, there are some inmates who require this program who may never have the opportunity to attend (either due to difficulties forming a group or because of protective custody concerns).
  • Many SHU inmates have special needs (i.e. mental health, literacy, etc.) that make it difficult for them to complete a group program, or participate at the same rate as the rest of the group.
  • Given that even more programs are being offered at the SHU (as well as English and French versions of each program), difficulties are being encountered in finding adequate program space to meet the current needs. Plans are being made to reconfigure the space available at the SHU to rectify this issue. (Report on the Audit of the Special Handling Unit, May 1998 at 12-13)

One of the problems that had been identified in the 1996 audit was that the programs that were offered at the SHU were ones generally available in other institutions and were not specifically geared to the special needs and special risks that SHU prisoners presented. Even though in 1997-8 some of the additional programs were intended to address this vacuum, particularly a program for sex offenders and one on relational skills, the extent to which this shifted the balance along the security-program axis can be measured by the figures recorded in the 1997-8 Annual Report of the National Review Committee. This indicated that five prisoners were enrolled in the sex offender program, eleven prisoners in the relational skills program and individual psychological therapy was offered to seven prisoners. The numbers are even bleaker than they appear because it is likely that some of the same prisoners were participating in all three of these programs.

The realities of how little has changed at the Quebec SHU is expressed in the 1998-9 Annual Report of the Correctional Investigator. It concludes that while over the last number of years the Service has improved both the fairness of the S.H.U. decision-making process and the administrative efficiency of the National Review Committee,

The Service has not undertaken a review of the S.H.U. program for the purpose of determining the effectiveness of its policy of placing all dangerous offenders in one facility. The position of this office has been, since the inception of the Unit, that it was an ill-designed policy that would label offenders as the "worst of the worst" and create a solidarity amongst these offenders that would negate the Service objective of creating "an environment in which dangerous inmates are motivated and assisted to behave in a responsible manner so as to facilitate their integration in a maximum security institution."

There are currently two factors that lend credence to our long-held position. First, the level of participation in programming at the S.H.U. is extremely low, placing at question the utility of the time spent in the Unit. Second, the number of offenders that are released directly from the S.H.U. to the street, placing at question the overall effectiveness of the Unit's operations in meeting its stated objective. (Annual Report of the Correctional Investigator, 1998-99 [Ottawa: Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada, 2000] Online )

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