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“12 autres années de bagne pour Racine,” La Presse. November 21, 1980. Page A4.

Les tribulationsjudiciaires de Denis «Poker» Racine, 24 ans, en marge de toutes les frasques qu’il a commises ces derniers mois, bien qu’il ait été en prison depuis près de quatre ans, font partie de l’histoire ancienne depuis sa condamnation à 12 années additionnelles de bagne par le juge Jean-Guy Boilard, en Cour criminelle de Saint-Jérôme.

Cette peine, qui est consécutive à toute autre que peut purger Racine,vient de lui être imposée après qu’il eut été reconnu coupable, au terme du procès qu’il a subi au début du mois, pours a participation à une prise d’otages qui a duré 57 heures, au pénitencier Archambault de Sainte Anne-des-Plaines, en septembre 1979. 

Enprononçant cette sentence qu’il a qualifiée de sévère, le juge Boilard a expliqué qu’il avait pris en considération l’important rôle qu’avait tenu «Poker» Racine au cours de l’événement. L’un des trois mutins qu il’accompagnaient, Pierre Thibault, âgé de 20 ans, avait notamment été acquitté, après qu’il eut été établi qu’il avait justement été forcé par Racine à prendre part à la mutinerie.

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“‘Super Max’ – It’s a solitary life of misery for convicts in special unit,” Globe and Mail. September 12, 1980. Page 05.

By VICTOR MALAREK

One at a time a few extremely dangerous convicts trudge out of their cells to exercise by themselves for an hour.

They are being punished, and for about a month their life will be sheer misery in a prison within a prison because they have no physical contact with other prisoners or with their keepers.

But their woes will not end after those 30-odds days of strict solitary confinement. Then they start a long stretch of living under intense security, segregated from the rest of the prisoners.

Their world will revolve around a tiny cell constructed completely of steel, cramped recreation areas that are monitored by cameras and close contact with prisoners, who like themselves, are some of the most violent criminals in the country.

Their world is known as the special handling unit or ‘special max.’ There are only two in Canada – one at Millhaven penitentiary in Bath, Ont., and the other at the correctional development centre in Laval, Que.

According to Millhaven’s warden, John Ryan, the units are used to protect prison society from those convicts who are bent on using violence on both the guards and fellow prisoners.

Rehabilitative value is nonexistent
Until a few weeks ago, the total population at the two units was about 50. That figure got a sudden spurt of new blood as nine inmates, who took part in the hostage-taking incident at Laval penitentiary in Quebec, were transferred to the unit at the Laval centre.

Criminologists, psychologists and prisoners alike maintain that the units have no rehabilitative value.

Pierre Landreville, a professor of criminology at the University of Montreal, said the way the units are run ‘right now, they are inhuman. I think I would have to say their only function is to break the spirit.’

But he added that he thought the units are necessary because ‘some of these people are quite dangerous.’

Fred Sweet, chairman of the prisoners’ committee at Millhaven, said in a recent interview at the penitentiary that the units should be eliminated.

‘Some of the guys they (the administrations) put into SHU are potentially dangerous convicts, but once they’re put in, you remove the potential and then they are dangerous,’ Mr. Sweet said, pounding his clenched fist – the letters F, R, E, and D tattooed on his knuckles – on a bare wooden table.

Bryan Reynolds, a 29-year-old convict serving life for murder at Millhaven, described the unit as ‘a breeding ground for violent animals.’

‘Think of living in a room the size of a toilet (bathroom) day after day after day for months on end, only the cell is worse than a…doghouse. You’d get charged by the humane society for treating dogs the way convicts are treated in SHU,’ Mr. Reynolds said angrily. He has spent nine months in the unit.

Mr. Sweet maintained that if the prisoners were treated with ‘human dignity in the first place, SHU would not be necessary.’

Dragan Cernetic, former warden of the British Columbia penitentiary, who now works in operations at Correctional Service of Canada headquarters in Ottawa, hotly defended the units in a recent interview.

‘There are only two ways you can deal with violent inmates. You can impose stringent security on, the whole prison population or you can segregate three or four of the trouble-makers in a place where they can…rot as far as I’m concerned.’

Mr. Cernetic said the kind of convict he would recommend for incarceration in a special handling unit ‘is a man who I could not take home for dinner and feel safe with him.’

On a recent tour of the unit at Millhaven rarely given to outsiders, David Page, the officer in charge of the unit, tersely described the living conditions.

‘All the cells have been completely converted to steel. A steel desk, steel walls, steels sinks, and steel toilets. All the steel is painted. The beds are bolted to the walls.’

During the visit, the convicts were locked in their cells behind massive steel doors. Lunch was being passed to them through a hole in the middle of the door. Intense security was ever present through a maze of electronically controlled steel portals.

Every movement outside the cells is closely monitored either visually or by television cameras. Guards patrol the cell block about every 45 minutes when the men are locked in their cells and peep through a tiny glass opening in the doors to ensure nothing is amiss.

Red panic buttons, in case of trouble, prominently protrude from the walls in every cubicle in the ranges.

One hour a day to exercise alone
On the Phase I block, the tightest security area, a convict’s wiry hand jutted out of a hole in the door where meals are passed. Another prisoner yelled for a guard. ‘Can you come here for a mine. It’s important. I want to discuss my welfare.’

In Phase I, Mr. Page said, inmates get out of their cells one at a time for only an hour a day to exercise.

Conditions improve as the prisoners graduate to Phase 2 and 3, where periods outside the cells and contact with inmates is increased to a little more than six and eight hours a day respectively.

It’s in those latter phases, ‘other than the fact that their movement is contained, the prisoners are a lot better off in some cases than the other inmates. The other inmates don’t have television in their cells,’ Mr. Page said.

A couple of cells have been converted into recreation rooms and mini-gyms where inmates can either play guitars, listen to music or pound out their frustrations on a heavy punching bag.

Inmates can also go outside occassionally to a yard aptly referred to by the guards and prisoners as a ‘cloister.’ They get movies twice a week.

James Hayes, a psychologist at Millhaven, said that sicne the program was started at the penitentiary ‘we’ve had no returnees. The recidivism rate is nil.

Mr. Hayes said that ‘the inmates knows very clearly what he has to do to get his release back to the normal prison population.’

The operative word is co-operation. Inmates must not be mouthy to the guards and must show they can get along with their fellow inmates in the unit.

No limit is placed on the number of visits by family members to inmates in the unit, but the convict and visitor are separated by a cage, glass and screens.

‘The visits are inhuman,’ said Mr. Sweet. ‘The prisoner sits in a cage while he visits with his family. It’s degrading.’

Of his stay in the unit, Mr. Reynolds said the intense security ‘bothers you at first but you get used to it…We’re human beings. What they’re doing in SHU is illegal…(It) is morally illegal because it is cruel and unusual punishment.’

Frank Steel, a member of the three-man board at the Correctional Service of Canada in Ottawa that decides who goes into units, said inmates who take hostages during an escape attempt are almost automatically sent there.

Other infractions leading to an incarceration are murder or or assault on a prison guard or another convict.

‘SHU candidates are those who are determined to be dangerous…inmates perceived to be particularly violent while under sentence,’ Mr. Steel said.

Confinement in the units is relatively free of bureaucratic red tape. A warden holds an in-penitentiary review of the cases and makes a recommendation that goes to regional headquarters and then to the special handling unit in Ottawa.

The board is made up of the deputy comminisioner of security, the head of offender programs and the director-general of medical services.

‘Once we recommend SHU, the case is reviewed monthly at the institution and every six months at national headquarters. Every six months we go to the SHUs and interview those inmates who wish to be interviewed. Usually they all want to be interviewed,’ Mr. Steel said.

Cases reviewed every month
‘We talk about thee progress he’s been making and sometimes give him an indication of when he can expect to be released to the normal population. Our biggest complaint (from the inmates) is the perceived capriciousness of the system and the uncertainty of when an inmate can expect to be released.’

The average stay in the unit is between 18 months and two years, Mr. Steel said.

One convict, who was involved the hostage-taking incident at the B.C. Penitentiary in June, 1975, in which Mary Steinhauser, a classification officer, was killed by prison guards, was released last June from the Millhaven unit.

Paul Caouette, executive secretary of the Union of Solicitor-General Employees, vehemently defended the use of the units, ‘especially when it involves the safety of the guards.’

Mr. Caouette warned that if politicians ever fell to the demands of prisoners’ rights groups of convicts to ban the units, they would see a rapid dwindling in the number of guards.

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“Lisa Neve was once Canada’s most dangerous woman. In 1994, she was jailed indefinitely and became one one of only four Canadian women in history to be given a dangerous offender designation.

She hasn’t spoken publicly since that dangerous offender status was controversially overturned back in 1999 and she was released. On Tuesday she sat in front of a Senate committee to testify on the human rights of prisoners in the federal correctional system.

The Senate committee on human rights is conducting a “comprehensive cross-country study” and was in Edmonton for what it calls a “fact-finding mission,” looking into what really goes on inside local correctional facilities.

“I want people to know you can’t take away someone’s life and tell them they are unredeemable at 21 years old,” Neve told Global News in an interview. “I’m not Canada’s most dangerous woman. I’m Lisa Neve. I’m a sister, a partner, a friend.”

Neve has more than 20 convictions on her record ranging from forcible confinement to aggravated assault. She said the convictions stem from five incidents.

She left home when she was just 12 years old and was in and out of correctional centres starting at the age of 15. Neve lived with mental health issues and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. She said being put on medications to help regulate the illness changed her life.

“I’ve had a crazy life,” Neve said. “When the judge said my sentence expires at my natural time of death, that was the most profound thing.”

Neve said knowing she would never get her life back inspired her to make a change. She said she was also deeply affected by victim impact statements given in court.

“There are all of these people testifying about all of these horrible things you’ve done and it makes you feel less than human,” she said. “You hurt these people with no regard until it’s too late. You can’t say sorry.”

Neve said she heard similar stories while going through a victim-reconciliation program while she was incarcerated.

“It has an immense impact on the way you feel,” she said. “You don’t know the impact until you hear a full story.”

Neve testified that the program helped her to change her life around and would see benefits if more programs like it are introduced in more correctional facilities.

What she doesn’t want to see more of is dangerous offender designations, especially for women.

“It’s got to stop,” she said. “Women who have been declared dangerous offenders, if you put them up against a man it’s so vastly different.”

“If a woman acts violent it’s appalling,” Neve continued. “It’s like they’ve gone against every gender [stereotype] available.”

It’s something Senator Kim Pate, who is on the Human Rights Committee, agrees with, while pointing out that the majority of dangerous offenders in Canada are Indigenous, like Neve, who is Métis.

“We should really take pause because many of them have histories of abuse,” Pate said.

According to Correctional Service Canada, in 2016, 681 people were serving sentences with a dangerous offender designation.

In response to 1969’s Ouimet report, the federal government repealed the habitual offender and dangerous sexual offender rules in 1977 and introduced the current dangerous offender system.

“I think we need a similar review,” Pate said, adding it should include long-term sentences along with “people who have been sentenced [at] essentially every other stage in our society.””

– Quinn Ohler,

“Former dangerous offender Lisa Neve speaks about her once notorious designation: ‘You lose all hope’.” Global News, August 8, 2018.

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“…sentencing reform — mainly consisting of reduced penalties for drug-related crimes — has received bipartisan support at both the federal and state levels. But this isn’t enough. We should also bring back discretionary parole — release before a sentence is completed — even for people convicted of violent crimes if they’ve demonstrated progress during their imprisonment.

Other democracies regularly allow such prisoners to be granted reduced sentences or conditional release. But in the United States the conversation about this common-sense policy became politicized decades ago. As a result, discretionary parole has largely disappeared in most states and was eliminated in the federal system. Prisoners whose sentences include a range of years — such as 15 to 25 years, or 25 years to life — can apply to their state’s parole board for discretionary parole, but they almost always face repeated denials and are sent back to wither away behind bars despite evidence of rehabilitation. (Inmates who have served their maximum sentence are released on what is called mandatory parole.)

Rejection is usually based on the “nature of the crime,” rather than an evaluation of a person’s transformation and accomplishments since they committed it. The deeper reason for the rejection of discretionary parole requests is simple: fear. Politicians and parole board members are terrified that a parolee will commit a new crime that attracts negative media attention.

But this fear-driven thinking is irrational, counterproductive and inhumane. It bears no connection to solid research on how criminals usually “age out” of crime, especially if they have had educational and vocational opportunities while incarcerated. It permanently excludes people who would be eager to contribute to society as law-abiding citizens, while taxpayers spend over $30,000 a year to house each prisoner. And it deprives hundreds of thousands of people of a meaningful chance to earn their freedom.

But are prisoners who have served long sentences for violent crimes genuinely capable of reforming and not reoffending? The evidence says yes. In fact, only about 1 percent of people convicted of homicide are arrested for homicide again after their release. Moreover, a recent “natural experiment” in Maryland is very telling. In 2012, the state’s highest court decided that Maryland juries in the 1970s had been given faulty instructions. Some defendants were retried, but many others accepted plea bargains for time served and were released. As a result, about 150 people who had been deemed the “worst of the worst” have been let out of prison — and none has committed a new crime or even violated parole.

This outcome may sound surprising, but having spent one afternoon a week for the past three years teaching in a maximum-security prison in Maryland, I’m not shocked at all. Many of the men I teach would succeed on the outside if given the chance. They openly recognize their past mistakes, deeply regret them and work every day to grow, learn and make amends. Many of them are serving life sentences with a theoretical chance of parole, but despite submitting thick dossiers of their accomplishments in prison along with letters of support from their supervisors and professors, they are routinely turned down.”

Marc Morjé Howard,

The Practical Case for Parole for Violent Offenders.” Opinion, The New York Times. August 8, 2018.

Photograph is
“An inmate at St. Clair Correctional Facility in Alabama.” William Widmer for The New York Times

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IX. HABITUAL CRIMINALS

Another aspect of the rehabilitative ideal was the segregation
of offenders into categories to prevent “contagion”. Some
classification took place in the 1930s with the construction of Collins
Bay in Kingston and Laval at St. Vincent de Paul for younger and less
hardened offenders. The construction of these institutions is
important in the history of sentencing because, for the first titre, the
judges lost a great measure of control over the institution in which
the sentence would be served. It was now up to the Penitentiary Branch
to decide where an inmate sentenced to over two years would go. Prior
to this, the Ontario judge, for example, made the decision between a
provincial institution or Kingston Penitentiary, the only Federal
institution in Ontario. 

There had also been some attempt in earlier years to segregate
some of the more brutal offenders by using the Prison of Isolation at
Kingston. One group in particular that was thought to require
special attention was the habitual criminal. The Gladstone Committee
of 1895 talked of the “large class of habitual criminals not of the
desperate order, who live by robbery and thieving and petty larceny,
who run the risk of comparatively short sentences with comparative
indifference.  The Committee recommended "that this class of
prisoners should be kept as a class apart from others. We think that
they are a most undesirable element in a mixed prison population, and
that they require and deserve special treatment.” Moreover, they said,
“a new form of sentence should be placed at the disposal of the judges
by which these offenders might be segregated for long periods of detention….” Such special legislation was enacted in England in
1908, but not in Canada. The Archambault Report recommended
that similar legislation be passed and in 1947 such legislation
was enacted. A habitual criminal was defined as one
who “has previously, since attaining the age of eighteen years, on at
least three separate and independent occasions been convicted of an
indictable offence for which he was liable to imprisonment for five
years or more and is leading persistently a criminal life”. A person
found to be a habitual criminal would be incarcerated for life, with a
yearly review. The English legislation, it should be noted,
was repealed in 1967. As the Ouimet Report pointed
out, legislation “was enacted in Canada at a time when its
defects were already being recognized in England”. The Ouimet
Committee recommended its abolition. In 1977 the habitual
criminal legislation was repealed and replaced by “Dangerous
Offenders” legislation.

– Martin Friedland, “SENTENCING STRUCTURE IN CANADA: HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVES.” Research Reports of the Canadian Sentencing Commission. Toronto: University of Toronto 1988 pp. 44-45  

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Dear Sir,
I ask permission from the Minister [of Justice] to inflict corporal punishment (Leather paddle) on P. J. O’Reilly, an incorrigible convict who persists in openly defying the officers and calling them ‘sons of bitches’, ‘Bastards’, &c., &c. He has been kept in punishment cell for weeks at a time and has been tied to cell door during working hours for three weeks. He then went to his work and after a week or so has again refused to work is now in punishment cell where he abuses the officers passing his cell. I do not think the hose a safe or proper punishment in his case and recommend the paddle unless the surgeon reports him insane or unfit for punishment.

Yours sincerely,

J. M. Platt

Warden.

To: Inspectors of Penitentiaries,
Ottawa.

Letter #539

June 1, 1909

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