location: publications / books / Prisoners of Isolation: Solitary Confinement in Canada / Chapter 5 The Penitentiaries’ Response to the McCann Case: Canada’s New Prisons of Isolation / Administrative Segregation in the 1980s / The Special Handling Units

Because there are still no real programs in Millhaven, because the world of the SHU is still circumscribed by a television set, a common room, and an exercise yard, the prisoner, even though he is now equipped with an individual program plan, is still no more able than he ever was to demonstrate ‘responsible behaviour’ beyond not breaking the rules. The prisoners are openly contemptuous of the individual program plans. This is not just because there are no programs in the SHU. Coupled with the introduction in December 1980 of the individual program plan was the provision that henceforth the progression through the first three phases of the SHU program would ‘normally’ take a minimum of two years, with a further one-year period in phase four at a maximum-security institution.108 For the prisoners this change overshadows all the others. According to the figures compiled by the National Review Committee, the average length of stay in a special handling unit prior to 1980 was only one year. 109 The assertion by senior officials involved with the formulation of SHU policy that the change was intended in part to benefit the prisoners by removing the indeterminate quality of confinement in SHU has a hollow ring to it, given both the twofold increase in the normal stay in the SHU and the statement in the new commissioner’s directive that ‘the mere progres- sion through phases one, two and three does not in itself justify a conditional transfer to a maximum security institution.’110 The effect of this change is not just to double the amount of time a man can expect to stay in the SHU. It has also totally undermined the reality of individual program plans. If, as the prisoners are now told, the ‘normal’ SHU program is two years in the SHU with a month in phase one, twelve to fifteen months in phase two, and the balance in phase three, then of what avail is an individual program plan purportedly designed to enable a prisoner ‘to progress through each phase at a rate determined by his own demonstrated ability’?111 It is my judgment that the changes introduced since 1980 have done nothing to meet the criticisms I have levelled at the SHU in Millhaven. In reality the changes have intensified both the punishment and the hypocrisy of the system.

The charge of hyprocrisy which SHU prisoners make when referring to the phase program relates, as I have tried to show, to the distance between rhetoric and reality. Before one of my visits to SHU and after another, I had interviews in Ottawa with the senior officials directly responsible for the planning and implementation of SHU policy. Sitting in their offices among flow charts and reports, listening to their descriptions of SHU, I found it difficult to believe that they were talking about the same places that I had seen. Yet these officials are no strangers to the SHUs. They visit them at least every six months as part of the National Committee Review process. They believe that the SHU program is qualitatively different from the old-style segregation units. It is my judgment that the words of Charles Dickens, written with reference to those who introduced the original regime of solitary confinement in Cherry Hill, are equally applicable to those who devised the SHUs: ‘I am persuaded that those who devise the system and ...also carry it in to effect do not know what it is that they are doing.’112

Perhaps the best example of the underlying reality of the SHU at Millhaven is to be found in an incident that occurred shortly before my visit in August 1980. A staff-member placed a sign reading ‘Psychologist’ in the window of the control bubble, inside which an officer armed with a shotgun is present at all times. In the words of the prisoners, it was put there ‘to ridicule the inmates of G-2 Tier. This form of psychological taunt is but one subtle way life is made difficult and which inmates feel the necessity to reciprocate in kind.’113 The administration admitted that this sign had in been put up by a staff member. In the special handling unit at Millhaven, behavioural change is induced not by opportunities for intellectual and sensory stimulation, not by offering creative opportunities for prisoners to deal with their anger and their violence, but ultimately by forcing them to look down the barrel of a shotgun. In this it is no different from the regime at the British Columbia Penitentiary.

The prisoners in Millhaven, however, face great difficulty in explaining their situation to the outside world. For one thing, they are confronted by the appearance of progress in the phase program and the fact that they are not (except in phase one) locked up for twenty-three hours a day. Their imprisonment therefore cannot be classified in the same way as the traditional form of solitary confinement practised in the special correcnional unit at the British Columbia Penitentiary. The official bureaucracy maintains the myth of the phase program and reacts extremely negatively to any prisoner who would belie its existence. The principle of fairness in reviews is reinforced -on paper -in a procedure that assuages the protests of most civil libertarians who previously challenged the procedures in the old-style segregation units. Yet the prisoners in the special handling unit at Millhaven know that despite these paper changes the underlying reality of long-term segregation has not changed. The real agenda of the special handling unit is to ensure that the prisoners become and remain submissive. It will be recalled that the expert evidence of Dr Fox and Dr Korn in the McCann case explicitly showed that this was what lay behind the regime in the British Columbia Penitentiary and the other segregation units with which they had had experience. The early part of this book has traced the origins of the ideology of submission back to the first days of the penitentiary. As two Italian scholars have recently stated,

The first stage of the penitentiary ...has a characteristic tendency progressively to reduce the criminal personality (rich in his deviant individuality) to a homogeneous dimension; to being a mere subject ...Uprooted from his universe, the inmate in solitary confinement gradually becomes aware of his weakness, of his fragility, of his absolute dependence upon the administration, that is, on the ‘other’; thus he becomes aware of himself as a subject-of-need. This is what can be described as the first stage of reformation: transformation of the ‘real subject (criminal) into an ‘ideal subject’ (prisoner)114

What has changed in the two hundred years since the birth of the penitentiary is the rhetoric of subjection. Melossi and Pavarini have given us this description of the nineteenth-century rhetoric:

Religion (or rather, religious instruction) becomes the favoured instrument in the rhetoric of subjection ...to show tangible signs of repentance (that is, to have made the long journey to spiritual salvation) is tantamount to giving sure proof of reformation (of progress in the re-educative process). In this light, religious practice is essentially administrative practice: the chaplain is a diligent book- keeper who must render his account to the administration. The following notes in the diary of a certain Lacombe, the Chaplain at Cherry Hill, illustrate this.

‘Number 876. John Nugent, barber, understands pretty well what is required in order to obtain salvation, but seems not to feel; June 9, 1839-professed conversion; have found it insincere as I supposed; pretends he only meant to try me. Incurable ...

Number 920. George Thomas. Does not read the Scriptures; has no wish to repent. Says he is a free man, obviously deranged. Tell[s] me “go talk to the convicts about such damned stuff” (a dangerous fellow).’115

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