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Solitary confinement for federal inmates often exceeds UN recommendations

Edward (Eddie) Snowshoe, back row, right, poses for a photo with his mother and three brothers.

One out of every three federal inmates in solitary confinement languishes in the isolated cells for more than 30 days – twice the maximum duration recommended by the United Nations.

That 2013 figure, provided to The Globe and Mail in the wake of an inquiry that found 24-year-old Edward Snowshoe spent 162 days in solitary confinement before taking his life in 2010, shows how Canada is bucking international trends in its use of the extreme form of incarceration, compared with other jurisdictions.

Mr. Snowshoe hung himself in an Edmonton cell on Aug. 13, 2010. On Tuesday, an Alberta judge released the results of fatality inquiry outlining how Mr. Snowshoe's suicide followed a pattern of administrative neglect that left him alone in a cell for over five months, monitored only through a mail slot, despite having a history of suicide attempts.

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For Howard Sapers, the federal corrections investigator, the Alberta report read like well-worn script. Since he began his role a decade ago, Mr. Sapers has repeatedly urged Correctional Service Canada (CSC) to prohibit placing in segregation offenders who have a history of suicide attempts or other mental-health issues. It's one of many outstanding recommendations by Mr. Sapers that the CSC has yet to act on, some of which go back to his six-year-old report into suicide of Ashley Smith, the New Brunswick teen who spent more than 1,000 days in solitary confinement before strangling herself to death in 2007.

While CSC said it supports the prohibition recommendation in principle, there has been no move toward implementing it.

"It's very frustrating to see that same error occurred," said Mr. Sapers, who provided The Globe with a series of updated figures on the increasing use of solitary confinement in federal penitentiaries. "In fact, the Correctional Service of Canada did not need yet another fatality inquiry to tell them what's wrong and what do to about it. There have been several coroner's inquests, fatalities inquiries, the CSC's own internal boards of investigation and a substantial body of investigative work from my office that have identified these same problems over and over and over again."

A CSC spokeswoman said the service would not comment on Mr. Snowshoe's fatality inquiry until it fully reviews 12 recommendations contained in Justice James Wheatley's report.

The use of solitary confinement in Canadian prisons is on the rise, jumping by 6.2 per cent in the five-year period leading up to 2013, according to figures provided by Mr. Sapers's office. As with Mr. Snowshoe, who hails from the predominantly Gwich'in community of Fort McPherson, NWT, one-third of those in segregation were aboriginal.

Of the 8,092 admissions to solitary confinement in the 2012-13 fiscal year, 67 per cent spent less then 30 days, 15.5 per cent remained for 30 to 60 days and 11 per cent waited between 60 and 120 days before being released or returned to the general population.

The remainder – 6.2 per cent – stayed in segregation for 120 or more, well beyond the 15-day maximum recommended in a United Nations report that called solitary confinement "a harsh measure which may cause serious psychological and physiological adverse effects on individuals" and "contrary to one of the essential aims of the penitentiary system, which is is to rehabilitate offenders."

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Other jurisdictions have heeded the UN's advice. Several U.S states are actively curtailing their use of solitary confinement. Mississippi, in particular, has reduced the number of inmates in its solitary confinement cells by 75 per cent since 2007. There's more than just a humanitarian impetus in the U.S. Inmates housed in the general population cost half us much as those in solitary, according to U.S. figures.

"This is increasingly recognized as a problem in modern corrections," said Mr. Sapers.

Editor's note: A previous version of this article said incorrectly that Ashley Smith spent more than 2,000 days in some form of segregation. In fact, based on information from prison officials and the Smith family lawyer and different definitions of solitary, the best estimate for the number of days is 1,047 or more than 1,000.

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About the Author
National reporter

Patrick previously worked in the Globe's Winnipeg bureau, covering the Prairies and Nunavut, and at Toronto City Hall. He is a National Magazine Award recipient and author of the book Mountie In Mukluks. More


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