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The Special Handling Units

It will be recalled that the Vantour Report in its recommendations for segregation drew a distinction between prisoners who constituted temporary threats to the good order of the institution and those who represented long-term threats. The report recommended that the first group be retained in segregation units in their own institutions, and that the latter group be sent to special segregation units to be established in the new maximum-security institutions that had been or were being built in each region. Dr Vantour (together with an architect) was subsequently asked to prepare a further report, which sets out an operational model for the physical space and programming requirements of what were to be called ‘special handling units.’4O It is clear that none of the existing segregation facilities in maximum-seurity institutions came close to meeting the physical requirements set out in the draft Vantour- McReynolds Report; therefore, special handling units, if they were to conform to the Vantour-McReynolds model, would require new construction or at least extensive modifications of the existing facilities.41

Although the report was still only in draft form, the Department of the Solicitor-General readily embraced the Vantour-McReynolds concept and proceeded to establish two special handling units (initially referred to as ‘federal adjustment centres’), one at the Correctional Development Centre in Laval, Quebec, and the other at Millhaven Institution in Ontario, notwithstanding that neither of the facilities met the physical requirements of the Vantour-McReynolds model. This decision was heavily influenced by the politics surrounding the passage of Bill C-51, the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1977,42 which abolished capital punishment. As the trade-off for the legal abolition of the hangman’s noose (by virtue of the exercise of the prerogative of mercy, no one had been executed in Canada since 1962) Bill C-51 instituted life sentences with a minimum parole eligibility date of twenty-five years for persons conviicted of first-degree murder. The government, to demonstrate to critics of abolition that it was concerned not to undermine the deterrent effect of the law, announced its intention to confine those convicted of first-degree murder in super- maximum security in the new special handling units. This plan was quite contrary to the recommendations in the first Vantour Report, which had stated that no one should be considered a dangerous prisoner within the setting of the maximum-security penitentiary on the basis of his offence in the community ‘until it has been established that he represents a threat to institutional staff or other inmates or is an escape risk even in maximum security.’43 Political considerations, therefore, rather than correctional principles, played a large part in the initial decision to establish Canada’s new prisons of isolation.

Although the special handling units at Millhaven and the Correctional Development Centre were not the new facilities envisaged by the Vantour- McReynolds model, that model has played and continues to play a central role in establishing the theoretical framework of operation for these units. Therefore, before looking at the reality faced by prisoners confined in the new prisons of isolation, it is important to examine carefully this theoretical framework in order to better understand the congruence or dissonance between the rhetoric and that reality.

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