Segregation at Kent Maximum Security -
The ‘Cadillac’ of Canadian Penitentiaries
The British Columbia Penitentiary was closed in 1980. Its
replacement, Kent Institution, had started to receive prisoners in 1979.
Kent is the most modern of Canada’s maximum-security prisons. The commemorative
issue of the Canadian Correctional Service’s official magazine, Let's
Talk, published on the occasion of the closing of the British Columbia
Penitentiary, described Kent.
Kent Institution epitomizes a new era
in correctional philosophy. An atmosphere of punishment and rigid security
have been replaced by one of education, work, and rehabilitation opportunities.
Cramped cells, placed tier on tier, the
overcrowding, the noise, the institutional green paint of the BC Penitentiary,
have been replaced by Kent’s bright modern colours and living units, where
inmates live in groups small enough for them to get to know each other
and their living unit officers. They no longer eat, alone in their cells
as at the BC Pen, but in a cheerful cafeteria near a pleasant lounge.
‘It’s like comparing the Black Hole of Calcutta with Buckingham Palace,’
former Solicitor-General Warren Alimand said two years ago, referring
to the opening of Mission Institution. You could say the same today, comparing
BC Penitentiary with Kent Institution. 131
The solicitor-general, the Honourable Robert Kaplan, in
his address on the occasion of the closing of the British Columbia Penitentiary,
boldly predicted a new future, one that should not ignore the experience
of the past.
We can all look forward with pride and
hope to a new era of corrections with greater opportunities for both inmates
and staff to work together in harmony ...We move toward an uncharted future
with unknown challenges, strengthened by the rich heritage of example
and experience of all those who have lived and worked here. It is worthwhile
remembering that ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to
It has been an underlying thesis of this work that an understanding
of the past - in particular, of the origins of penitentiary discipline
-is vital to an assessment of present carceral practices. It is therefore
appropriate that I should conclude this analysis of present practices
with a discussion of Kent Institution which, on another occasion, the
former solicitor- general called the ‘Cadillac’ of Canadian penitentiaries.
Behind the facade of its ‘bright modern colours,’ what has changed in
the theory and practice of carceral power for those who face administrative
It will be recalled that the first Vantour Report recommended
that segregation units be established in each institution for prisoners
requiring short-term segregation. The original design of Kent Institution
provided for only four cells for such segregation. However, soon after
its opening, one of the eight ‘living units’ was designated a segregation
area, and H unit has since become synonymous with the ‘hole’ at Kent.
H unit consists of twenty-four cells which are the same size as all others
in the institution, being ten feet long, eight feet high, and six feet
wide; in each cell a solid door contains a small window that looks out
on the corridor and a window on the outside wall that lets in natural
light. The cells, which originally had no furnishings in them, have each
been equipped with the same steel bedframe, sink-toilet combination, and
table-chair combination introduced into the penthouse at the British Columbia
Penitentiary after the McCann case. These
furnishings were transferred to Kent when the British Columbia Penitentiary
was closed. A prisoner who has spent a substantial amount of time in H
unit has proved this description of the regime.
In this place people are virtually buried
alive in concrete tombs for periods of up to 231/2 hours daily. The exercise
area itself is only about 20 x 30 feet encircled by cement and bars with
wire fencing covering the roof. At no time are more than three prisoners
allowed to exercise together, and the exercise they do get only consists
of a brisk walk back and forth.
Prisoners in H Unit are not allowed
open visits with their families. All they receive are brief telephone
visits, where the visitor is on one side of a glass parti- tion and the
prisoner is on the other side. Even though the prisoners are skin- frisked
both before and after the visits, they are still refused human contact
with their loved ones. Unlike the main population, the prisoners in H
Unit are not allowed to watch any television or see a movie. The availability
of a newspaper is restricted. The only library that exists is a small
box of books that is made up of spy stories and westerns, which are exchanged
weekly by the guards. Treated differently than the main prison population,
the prisoners of H Unit do not have easy access to a telephone for outside
calls. Where prisoners in the popultion are allowed to phone both family
and lawyers, prisoners in H Unit can only occasion- ally telephone their
lawyers. That is, if their request forms are not lost or mis- placed as
the case has been. Prisoners placed in H Unit receive little or no funds
to purchase the items they require for basic survival. They are classified
as unproductive and receive the lowest scale of pay within the prison.
Thus writing paper, envelopes and communication with the outside world
is a major concern. People in the H Unit are not allowed a pen. They are
supplied a three-inch-long pencil for their written communication which
must be returned to the guards after its use. Sanitary arrangements for
prisoners in the H Unit are completely inadequate. They are only allowed
two showers per week and are restricted to only one set of clothes and
bedding that are exchanged weekly. Also, disinfectant is not allowed inside
the cells, nor is there even a mirror inside the cell area. Most everything
required for appearance and grooming is dependent upon a guard bringing
it to you for brief periods of time once a day. The only time a prisoner
gets to clear his cell is a ten-minute period, usually each morning. There
is no educational programme or instruction for prisoners in the H Unit.
Where the general population, as a whole, have access to this type of
programme, the prisoners entombed in H Unit do not. Nor are there any
hobbies allowed to H Unit prisoners to help with the idleness and boredom.
Unlike other segregation areas in Canada that allow prison population
committees access to the segregation area to hear fellow prisoner complaints,
grievances and concerns, the administration in Kent will not allow this;
all they will allow is written censored communication between the dissociation
inmates and the prison inmate committee. Contrary to other penitentiaries
that have segregation units, Kent Penitentiary houses both prisoners on
disciplinary punishment and dissociation inmates not on punishment together
in the same unit. The consequences of this [are] that the Kent staff treat
all inmates in the H Unit as if they were being punished due to a breach
of the rules and regulations ...In the B.C. Penitentiary, that type of
confinement was ruled to be cruel and unusual punishment contrary to the
Canadian Bill of Rights. It’s shocking to see a new prison like Kent carry
on the bad practices that made the B.C. Pen the cesspool it was. Does
that mean that you can disguise the monster but never change its heart?
This certainly appears to be the case here at Kent.
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