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

Like the prisoners in Millhaven, the prisoners in the CDC see the recent manipulation of the phase program as insignificant compared to the changes introduced in 1980 through the new commissionerís directive which established the normal duration of containment in the SHU at two years. To the prisoners in the CDC this is the clearest possible evidence that time is indeed the only program in the special handling unit. They are not alone in this judgment; their view is now shared by the prison psychologist. In my interview with him in August 1980 he had expressed the opinion that he was able to help the well-motivated prisoner to achieve his early release from SHU. In May 1982 he expressed extreme cynicism about being able to help anyone in SHU. As he saw it, the establishment of a minimum period of two years in SHU undermined any prospect of motivating prisoners to do something positive in order to get out. He was of the view that because of the minimum term, individual program plans were psychological nonsense. Most important, he expressed the view that the six-month national-committee review process was now a review in name only. ĎTalking to the review committee now is like talking to robots. They donít listen. They go through the motions of listening to the individual case but they end up deciding when to release a prisoner according to the time periods in the directive.í129

On my second visit to the CDC in May 1982, I also interviewed Edgar Roussel. Mr Roussel had spent a total of four years in the special handling unit, relieved only by a few weeks in Laval Penitentiary. He had also experienced the old-style segregation unit of Quebecís nineteenth-century prison, St Vincent de Paul. As the previously quoted extracts from his letters indicate, he is intelligent and articulate. I showed Edgar Roussel a draft of what I had written about the SHUs and their relationship to the old segregation units such as the penthouse of the British Columbia Penitentiary. I asked him how he would summarize the nature of doing time in a special handling unit for those who would never experience it. This is what he told me.

A man to be a man must be able to exercise initiative. In here they take that away from you. The worst thing about the SHU is that you are totally dependent on the guards. You need them for everything. They even control the temperature of your shower. A man must have ideals. In here there is no respect for your ideals. You are nothing to them except a dangerous animal. A man needs to have a sense of territory even if it is only very small. In here there is no respect for that. Even inside your cell, because of the catwalk above you, the guards are stepping oní your territory. Outside your cell, particularly in the common room where you are with ten men chosen as your companions by the guards, you are always stepping on someoneís territory. A man must have a clear sense of who he is. In here in order to get out you have to borrow a personality that is not your own. This place breeds deceit at the same time as it breeds violence. I could go along with a segregation unit if it served some purpose. This place doesnít. Itís like living on another planet. 130

I spent two hours with Edgar Roussel in the interview room of block 5. We were separated by a wall on top of which was a thick lattice-wire grill. Looking through that grill it was impossible to see both of Edgar Rousselís eyes at once. After about thirty minutes his face no longer appeared as a whole face but rather as disconnected fragments. Before my eyes, Edgar Roussel appeared to disintegrate. The statement in his letter to the Honourable Mark McGuigan that the aim of the SHU is to Ďassassinateí the prisonerís personality never seemed more real. As I left the CDC at the end of the interview, I was shown the small cemetery located just outside the perimeter fence. It is the burial ground for men who die in the penitentiary and whose bodies are not claimed by relatives. Inscribed on the headstones in this small windswept plot of earth are not the names of the men, but their penitentiary numbers. Reducing a man to nothing but a number and burying him is a far more accurate reflection of the psychological reality of the special handling unit than is the rhetoric of Dr Vantourís phase program.

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