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Let's Talk

VOL. 31, NO. 2

The Special Handling Unit

High Security, Special Expertise

Safety and Security - Inside CSC Institutions

BY Djamila Amellal, Communications Officer, Communications and Citizen Engagement

Photos: Bill Rankin

As one of its main priorities, the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) is working to meet the challenges related to the changing offender profile, including the safety of both offenders and staff in our institutions. Whether it is infrastructure, equipment or programs, CSC continues to make the necessary changes to ensure an essential level of safety and security.

The Special Handling Unit (SHU) at the Regional Reception Centre in Quebec Region is one excellent example of an environment where safety has true meaning. The Let’s Talk team was recently given an on-site tour with Unit Manager Serge Brouillette, who spoke openly about the environment, the day-to-day work and the security challenges in this national unit that serves all maximum-security institutions in Canada.

Standing at the entrance of the unit, Brouillette prepares to do his rounds. “Transfer of offenders to the SHU is an exceptional measure of last recourse, designed to accommodate inmates who cannot be integrated into a maximum-security penitentiary for safety reasons. These are our most violent offenders who, at some point in time, have demonstrated the danger they pose for other inmates or staff. Our unit’s mission is, first and foremost, to provide the necessary supervision to stop the violent behaviour and thus ensure the staff’s and inmates’ safety. We must then prepare inmates, within the shortest possible timeframe, to return to a maximum security institution by putting them through a long list of programs that target violent behaviour.”

“I always know what time I start work in the morning,” says Brouillette with a broad smile, “but I never know what time I’ll be leaving at the end of the day. I leave when the work is complete.” The unit manager is proud of the fact that both he and his staff, through their own diligence, have prevented any major incidents from occurring in the last nine months.

Alert and Prepared

As we closely follow our guide through the dimmed interior, a deafening bang suddenly fills the silence, abruptly ending our conversation. For a moment time stands still. Brouillette is immediately on the alert, thanks to his 27 years of service with CSC. He quickly scans the surroundings and turns to two correctional officers (CXs) standing before a broad plexiglass barrier. He approaches them and quickly fires off a few questions. A bare-chested inmate standing behind the plexiglass has punched the barrier, complaining that the temperature in his cell is intolerable. Brouillette has a few words with the inmate. He turns to one of the CXs and suggests placing the inmate in the range yard as an interim solution until the air conditioning unit for his cell is repaired. He turns to us, apologizes, and says, “We never know when something will happen, and when it does, we need to be ready.”

The Facility and Population

“The Unit’s layout is based on dynamic security,” explains Brouillette. “It’s shaped like a star, with the control post located at the centre. It may appear forbidding to outsiders, but normal institutional activities take place in this unit and additional controls are implemented when movements occur.”

The SHU, built in 1984, can accommodate nearly 90 inmates in cells that are divided into five wings with two ranges on each wing. Each range houses nine inmates and includes a common room and yard access. The wings are divided according to population, including the assessment, segregation and protection wings. Cell 100 is reserved for any inmate in a crisis situation. Information concerning each offender is carefully entered on a chart in the control room and updated daily. Contact with staff is reduced to a minimum by hallways that are divided into two sides, one for staff movement and one for inmates. More than 50 cameras have been strategically installed for complete visual surveillance of the unit.

The SAS System Tailored to the SHU

Whether they are receiving visitors, taking a course, being interviewed or being transferred, inmates absolutely must transit through a double-locked security area: the SAS. Unit Manager Brouillette explains: “The SHU is based on the SAS system. The SAS is a secure area where correctional officers handcuff and frisk inmates and scan them with a metal detector before entry or exit. This system also makes it possible to monitor inmates’ movements one by one and thus, protect staff and inmates.

A Stay at the SHU

The SHU currently houses 71 inmates, their average age being 34 years, although some are as young as 21. The majority arrives from maximum-security institutions after being involved in serious incidents that demonstrate they are not manageable under ordinary security. The regional deputy commissioner of the region from which the inmate arrives authorizes a transfer to the SHU for assessment purposes. A national committee chaired by the senior deputy commissioner, composed of all the wardens from maximum-security institutions, assesses the unit’s inmates every four months to determine progress. Inmates are then transferred or remain at the SHU if no progress is noted. A correctional plan, including programs, is developed for each one. On average, they stay for close to one year.

Keeping Abreast of Tense Situations

According to the SHU manager, inmates assault staff or each other for various reasons. Thus, vigilance is crucial in this environment where appearances can be deceiving. “When something happens, we do not immediately jump to conclusions,” explains Brouillette. “In order to understand the reasons for the tension and to control the situation, we must keep in mind at all times that inmates are familiar with our security techniques and may try to use them against us. So, each time we stop, assess the situation, and make sure that we are not walking into a trap.”

SHU Placement and Transfers — National Responsibilities

According to Lee Redpath, SHU Senior Advisor to the senior deputy commissioner (SDC), management of the SHU’s inmate population is closely tied with the recommendations issued by the National Advisory Committee, chaired by SDC Don Head and supported by the other members, all maximum-security institution wardens. Final decisions concerning proposed placement, transfers or detention are made through the National SHU Advisory Committee by the SDC. “The SHU houses the most difficult inmates,” Redpath comments, “and even when they make progress, these inmates may have incompatibles somewhere. When the time comes to send them to another institution, the Committee is there to make things happen.” After consultation with and the decision of the SDC, the SHU has 30 days to move the inmate. “We contribute to everyone’s safety by ensuring that the inmates are placed in the location most appropriate for them.”

Motivation-Based Intervention Strategy (MBIS)

Various programs are available at the SHU to help inmates fulfil their correctional plan. In 2003, Sébastien Girard, a psychologist at National Headquarters, and Isabelle Bastien, responsible for the program at National Headquarters, developed the Motivation-Based Intervention Strategy expressly for SHU inmates who lack motivation and present a high risk of re-offending.

This intervention by parole officers at the SHU helps to increase the offenders’ receptiveness to change, helps them identify problem behaviours, select the behaviours they wish to change, consider the good and bad repercussions of their decisions, and determine their life goals. According to Girard, the results obtained so far are very promising.

Ongoing Training, a Prevention Tool

Sylvain Mongrain, National Training Coordinator, Reintegration Programs, National Headquarters, has participated this year in the development of institutional and community parole officers’ (PO) continuous training. This year, one of the two training workshops addresses ways to deal with resistant offenders. “It is a matter of safety,” he explains, “to equip POs with the tools they need to manage these inmates. A certain number of them are susceptible to re-offending and turning to violence.”

The CSC new recruit training program is solid and improves over time and with experience. The selection process for recruits is rigorous from the outset and training prepares them for work inside institutions at any security level. New recruits receive 11 weeks of theoretical and practical classroom training, and 2 weeks of practical training in an institution.

Yves Malépart, Assistant Director, Training, Quebec Region Staff College, explains that new recruits must recertify according to standards and additional courses on personal safety are organized at the request of the institutions. He emphasizes that continuity is an essential part of the preparation for security work. The recruits may also choose to become members of the institutional emergency response teams if the warden and members of the IERT recommend them.

“It’s a matter of safety to equip POs with the tools they need to manage resistant offenders.”
— Sylvain Mongrain

Team of Experts and Dynamic Security

“In spite of all the new facilities and equipment we have,” says Brouillette, “dynamic security is essential. Groups that customarily form within the inmate population of most institutions also exist within the SHU. The mix of various populations, such as organized crime groups, street gangs or protection groups, in Canada’s only SHU sometimes becomes very difficult to manage. Thanks to the expertise of my multidisciplinary team members, everything remains under control; they have developed an expertise that is specific to the SHU. Team members are skilled at talking with inmates, and they know when offenders are plotting. That is what dynamic security is all about.” ♦