A 24-year-old inmate killed himself after being banished to segregation cells for 162 consecutive days as punishment for brandishing a juice-box as a weapon, according to a judge’s fatality report released this week.
Now, with that damning report in hand, the inmate’s 50-year-old mother says she plans to sue for what it outlines: a sequence of institutional neglect and confusion preceding her son’s death that shows parallels with the case of Ashley Smith, the New Brunswick teen who spent 11 months in segregation cells at several prisons before taking her own life.
“Me and my kids are just hurt so bad, I have to do something,” said Effie Bella Snowshoe, from her home in Fort McPherson, NWT. “I have a hole in my heart.”
Her son, Edward Snowshoe, died four years ago, hanging himself in a cell at the maximum-security Edmonton Institution. But it was only this week, after the release of a judge’s report, that she came to know the full circumstances around her son’s death.
The five-page report outlines how a combination of miscommunication, confusion and neglect surrounded Mr. Snowshoe’s extended isolation.
“Edward Christopher Snowshoe fell through the cracks of a system and no one was aware of how long he had been in segregation even though that information was readily available,” writes the report’s author, Provincial Court Justice James Wheatley.
Mr. Snowshoe was serving a 5 1/2-year sentence for robbing and shooting a cabbie in 2007. The cabbie survived the attack.
While doing time at Stony Mountain Institution in Manitoba, he attempted suicide on three occasions and displayed depressive behaviour, according to the report. Despite his distressed state, staff made only cursory attempts to address his mental-health issues.
On March 1, 2010, he was caught brandishing what appeared to be a “stabbing weapon” and placed in a segregation cell the next day, with no interaction with the rest of the prison population.
The weapon turned out to be an inside-out juice box.
He would fester in the Manitoba cell for 134 days before corrections officials transferred him to the Edmonton Institution, where he would remain until his death on the evening of Aug. 13, 2010.
Justice Wheatley found that throughout Mr. Snowshoe’s solitary confinement, protocols in place to protect the well-being of mentally ill inmates in segregation were ignored. A nurse who conducted an interview with Mr. Snowshoe and knew of his history of self-harm forwarded his file for follow-up, but the “follow-up was never done adequately.”
When he was transferred to Edmonton, staff failed to account for the 134 days he had already spent in isolation, treating him instead as if his segregation time reset to zero as soon as he moved from Stony Mountain. Correctional officers told Justice Wheatley he was treated that way because only senior staff have access to the prison system’s computer database and they were never told of his suicide attempts.
All solitary inmates are required to undergo systematic check-ups after five days in segregation and then at 30-day increments. The transfer led to confusion as to when those reviews should take place and who should attend, the report says.
Ms. Smith endured similar but more extreme treatment, facing 17 transfers and more than 1,000 days in segregation.
Ms. Snowshoe says she and her three remaining sons find it all hard to take. To this day, she goes everywhere carrying a bag containing documents relating to her son’s case, Alka-Seltzer and Visine. “The Alka Seltzer is for my broken heart, the Visine for my tears,” she said. “Because I still cry every day.”
She penned a letter to her son just hours before his death promising to send $200. She added a few pages torn from a Sears catalogue and asked him to circle the clothing items he liked so she could have them ready upon his statutory release, just under five months away.
Toward the end of the letter, she says she got a bad vibe and wrote, “I have a feeling we’re never going to see you again.”
Between the time she wrote the letter and the time she planned to send it, two Mounties visited her to pass along the bad news.
“I remember screaming and falling to the ground, like suddenly I had no bones,” she said. “And now I know how awful he was treated, it’s like living it over again.”
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.