There are times when an error slips into a story without anyone noticing and it can continue to be repeated for months. In this case, it started in July with a story on the report into the death of Edward Snowshoe, a young inmate who killed himself after being in segregation for 162 days.
That article drew parallels with Ashley Smith, the New Brunswick teen who also died after a lengthy term in segregation cells.
How lengthy was the source of the original error. That July story said she spent 11 months in segregation cells at several prisons before taking her own life. That time referred to her time in federal prisons, but she was also held provincially.
The story also said incorrectly that she spent more than 2,000 days in segregation. That should have raised questions about a discrepancy in numbers even though the 11 months was just federal time.
The writer cannot remember how the error was made, but this month, after six more stories repeated that 2,000 number, a reader wrote in to question how that could be true.
Before a correction was written, I wanted to know what the true number was. A Globe and Mail reporter looked into the matter and found that it was not in the Snowshoe report that was the basis of the original report. The federal prison ombudsman, the Smith family lawyer and a spokesperson for the coroner's office all said they do not recall hearing a precise figure. It's worth noting that there are different definitions of what solitary confinement or administrative segregation is.
So here is the reporter's best estimate:
"According to a June, 2008, report from New Brunswick Ombudsman and Child and Youth Advocate Bernard Richard, Ms. Smith's time in custody can be traced back to Oct. 21, 2003, when she was on probation but was arrested and charged for throwing apples at a postal worker. She was then 'in and out of' the New Brunswick Youth Centre a total of five times, typically being released until a 'new incident' that put her back into custody. That continued until Dec. 29, 2003, when she was then sentenced to her first lengthy incarceration, the report says. She then stayed until Feb. 26, 2004, was released briefly ('hours,' the report says) and readmitted until Feb. 10 of the next year, 2005. She was released again and once again put back in on Feb. 14, 2005. From that point she was there until Oct. 5, 2006, the report says. It notes no other transfers, but also says she spent 'most of the remainder of her time [after that] as an incarcerated youth.' "
She then went to the Saint John Regional Correctional Centre, where she spent 26 days, 25 of them in a segregation unit, according to the report from the New Brunswick Ombudsman.
She was transferred to a federal facility Oct. 31, 2006, and stayed in federal custody until her death on Oct. 19, 2007.
The New Brunswick Ombudsman said Ms. Smith spent "over two-thirds" of her time in the New Brunswick Youth Centre in "Therapeutic Quiet" segregation, "alone in a nine-by-six-foot cell, 7.5 feet high, equipped with a sink/flush combination with a water fountain, a concrete slab topped off with a mattress and bedding." Excluding the "in an out" time, and if the report is correct in noting no other transfers between February, 2005, and October, 2006, that suggests 1,008 days at the centre. Two-thirds of that is 672 days.
Add to that 25 at the Saint John Regional Correctional Centre, as per the Ombudsman's report. Then, according to federal prison watchdog Howard Sapers, roughly 350 in some sort of segregation at the federal level, where she spent a total of 353 days in custody. Her mother, Coralee Smith, says nearly all of her federal time was spent in solitary, as does her lawyer. During this period in federal custody, she was transferred 17 times in just over 11 months across five provinces.
So, 672+25+350 = at least 1,047 days in some kind of segregation for Ashley Smith.
From this thorough accounting, in future stories if an estimate is required, The Globe will use more than 1,000 or an estimated 1,047.
You might wonder why that original error was repeated in six other stories over the past few months.
Reporters often will go back in the internal files to check on past stories to find such information as a number or a past quote. This is one of the reasons it is so important to correct all significant factual errors is so they do not get repeated in future stories.
In this case, all seven stories will be corrected so that reporters in the future will find the correct number when searching "the files."
Many thanks to the reader who queried the number so that the records can be accurate.
The correction will appear in Wednesday's paper and online in all the relevant articles.