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Corrections Canada failed Edward Snowshoe, and it knows it

Edward Snowshoe killed himself in prison in 2010.

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Correctional Service Canada has an eight-minute video on its website explaining its role. It's worth watching. On the one hand, you get to see how earnestly the federal agency and its employees strive to do a difficult job; on the other, you get to hear the CSC condemn itself with its own words.

As the agency that runs the country's penitentiaries, it is at the heart of a system meant to rehabilitate offenders. And it is failing. Its flagrant overuse of solitary confinement – a punitive measure so counter-productive that even the incarceration-crazy United States is putting an end to it – risks undermining the good work the CSC does.

Not only is the CSC refusing to deal with this issue, it is doing so in spite of knowing that it is putting inmates at risk. Meanwhile, prisoners are suffering to a degree that should shame a civilized nation but which doesn't seem to trouble the government much at all.

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Here are some of mission statements the CSC makes in its revealing video, annotated by us:

"As part of the criminal justice system, we contribute to public safety by actively encouraging and assisting offenders to become law-abiding citizens while exercising reasonable, safe, secure and humane control."

This newspaper's story this weekend about the life and death of Edward Snowshoe, a native of Fort MacPherson, NWT, makes it clear that the CSC does indeed work hard at rehabilitation. Some of its ideas are forward-thinking, such as the eight minimum-security healing lodges that allow native offenders to serve their time in culturally-appropriate settings.

As well, Mr. Snowshoe underwent extensive screening when he was first incarcerated in an Alberta penitentiary in 2007, following a conviction for armed robbery. Prison officials did their best to get Mr. Snowshoe settled and on his way to rehabilitation – at first. There is much that works in the penitentiary system, which makes it all the sadder that it failed so utterly when Mr. Snowshoe proved to be a difficult prisoner and began exhibiting signs of mental illness.

About two years into his sentence, Mr. Snowshoe threatened a guard with a juice box and was put in solitary confinement. As we now know, the transfer to a tiny, reeking cell barely large enough to hold a cot was a death sentence for a prisoner demonstrating clear suicidal tendencies and obvious depression. After a total of 162 days in isolation in two different facilities, Mr. Snowshoe hung himself in 2010. It was an incident depressingly similar to the one involving Ashley Smith, a young, mentally unstable woman who killed herself in 2007 after more than 1,000 days in isolation.

As those two cases graphically illustrate, CSC often gives up on the rehabilitation of mentally ill patients and turns to punitive measures that are not reasonable, safe or humane.

"We believe that the sharing of ideas, knowledge, values and experience, nationally and internationally, is essential to ... our mission."

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If only Canada's prisons lived up to this promise. There are plenty of voices calling for an end to solitary confinement. The United Nations considers its use for minors and people with mental illnesses to be the equivalent of torture. In the U.S. and Europe, prisons are reducing the use of segregation units or eliminating them altogether.

The reasons are straightforward: Solitary confinement makes healthy people sick, and sick people sicker. "The literature is clear that physical isolation and separation increases the risk of suicidal behaviour," Howard Sapers, Canada's prisons ombudsman, said in a review of federal inmate suicides released in September. "Long-term segregation of mentally disordered inmates or those at risk of suicide or serious self-injury should be prohibited."

Mr. Sapers's report says there are about 10 federal prison suicides in Canada every year. A disproportionate number of them occur in solitary confinement, and 44 per cent of the victims have mental health issues. Other countries have recorded similar numbers. And yet, at any given time, there are as many as 1,800 people in solitary confinement in federal or provincial facilities. While other countries cut back, our prisons are ramping up the use of a cruel corrections tool, and the CSC is deaf to national and international outcry calling on it to stop.

"We believe in managing the service with openness."

This is a complete untruth. Correctional Service Canada is unco-operative and secretive. Neither Don Head, the commissioner, nor Steven Blaney, the minister for public safety, has responded to the prison ombudsman's repeated pleas to limit the use of solitary confinement. Mr. Head was put in place by the Harper government in 2008, yet you've probably never heard of the man who runs an agency with 16,000 employees.

When the coroner investigating the death of Ashley Smith wanted Mr. Head to testify at a public inquest, CSC lawyers did their best to prevent it. He ended up on the stand anyway, where he admitted CSC staff receive no formal training on dealing with prisoners suffering from mental illness.

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He also told the inquest not to make any expensive recommendations because, "there is no free pocket money that we can go to to implement some of those things." This from the man running a prison system that is in the process of adding 2,700 new spaces.

Therein lies the heart of the problem. Mr. Head works for a law-and-order government that wants more prison cells containing more offenders serving longer sentences. His predecessor, Keith Coulter, said in 2007 that the corrections system can't meet the needs of offenders suffering from mental illness. He was replaced within months. At this point, we can expect to see more prisoners in solitary, not fewer.

Meanwhile, Mr. Head spends his time praising his unionized employees and remains disinclined to discuss the needs of prisoners. His official Twitter account is revealing: He tweets incessantly in remembrance of prison guards who died on the job, some of them dating back to the early 1900s.

"We work with offenders to help guide their transition from institution to community; helping them re-integrate with the safety of the community as our paramount concern."

Edward Snowshoe went home in a box. His mother still visits his grave every few days.

Editor's note: A previous version of this editorial 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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