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New details suggest that Adam Capay, seen in a family photo, is among a cohort of offenders who find themselves caught up in the justice system due to what one indigenous legal expert calls ‘very small crimes.’

A baseball bat, some alcohol and his mother's car. These ingredients, mixed badly on an otherwise ordinary day in February, launched Adam Capay on a dark journey through Canada's prison system that has grabbed the country's attention and led to accusations of institutional neglect and torture.

Mr. Capay, a 24-year-old member of the Lac Seul First Nation in Northwestern Ontario, has spent more than 1,500 days in solitary confinement awaiting trial for murder of a fellow inmate, much of the time in a Plexiglas-encased cell flooded at all hours with artificial light.

While the circumstances of Mr. Capay's imprisonment went unnoticed for years, his situation became public last week, catapulting him into the headlines as a symbol of the mistreatment of Canada's prison population. New details about his upbringing and criminal background also suggest he is among a cohort of offenders who initially find themselves caught up in the justice system due to what one indigenous legal expert called "very small crimes."

Nora Brisket, a relative through marriage who considers Mr. Capay a grandson, said his mother told her that the man's path to solitary confinement can be traced back to Feb. 24, 2012. That day, he was hit with a slew of charges: mischief, for willfully damaging his mother's vehicle; violating a probation order by buying, having, or drinking alcohol; and carrying a weapon – the baseball bat. He pleaded guilty to the three charges, while two other minor charges were withdrawn.

"She told me about the time he smashed the car, which is why he landed in jail … in the first place," Ms. Brisket told The Globe and Mail. "And then this thing happened while he was there."

The "thing" to which Ms. Brisket is referring allegedly happened while Mr. Capay was serving a five-month sentence for the weapon charge, court documents indicate. On June 3, 2012, he allegedly killed inmate Sherman Quisses by puncturing his carotid artery, according to his indictment for first-degree murder. His segregation from other inmates began soon after and continues to this day, though he has been moved to a more comfortable cell, provincial officials say.

It has been a brutal coda to a young adulthood punctuated by frequent run-ins with the law and brief prison sentences, a chapter in Mr. Capay's life that was itself a departure from an apparently comfortable and even promising childhood.

The story sounded painfully familiar to Christa Big Canoe, legal advocacy director of Aboriginal Legal Services of Toronto.

"You've described a majority of our clients," she said. "The lead up or trajectory of criminality, if you will, is often very small crimes, and it's often administrative breaches. It often leads to them getting serious custodial time."

Adam Mark Capay was born on July 20, 1992, and grew up in Lac Seul, an isolated Ojibway community about 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay. His parents, Glenda Brisket and Ransome Capay, could not be reached for comment, but members of the family and community described a "good kid" whose life changed course when he started drinking in his early teens.

Mr. Capay is the eldest of six children who grew up in a "big house" with his parents, who have been together for more than 25 years and work in home care in the community, Nora Brisket said. "They have everything," she said, "a couple vehicles and a boat."

As a boy, Mr. Capay played with trucks and video games. Nora Brisket described him as a "normal little boy" who was quiet around her – a sign of respect, she said, in their cultural tradition.

Family friend Eric Everson remembers taking young Adam on fishing trips with his stepson. He was well-raised and fond of fishing and boating, if arguably a little spoiled by his parents, Mr. Everson said. As an adolescent, though, he discovered alcohol and started getting into trouble.

"Like any teenager, he found the party scene and off he went," said Mr. Everson. "He was a hell of a nice kid until he started drinking."

By the time he was 18, he was in frequent trouble with the law, court records show. He loitered or prowled at night on a man's property in December of 2010. He assaulted a woman and broke a man's window in January of 2011. He failed to appear in court the following month. He assaulted a man and uttered threats against him in June of 2011. He assaulted the woman again in 2012. He breached bail or probation conditions in 2010, 2011 and 2012. And then there were the offences committed on Feb. 23, 2012, when he damaged his mother's vehicle.

Over the course of four years since he was charged with murder, three trial dates came and went for various reasons, including one borne of an application – brought by the defence and ultimately dismissed – regarding the representative nature of the city's jury roll. It will be another month until the matter is before the courts again, on Nov. 28.

Ms. Brisket said Mr. Capay's parents miss their son badly and make the trip to Thunder Bay Jail to visit him or attend court proceedings.

To keep in touch, they also accept his collect calls whenever he is allowed to use the phone. Their phone bill is very high, she said.

"I hope something can come out of this – that he can maybe get a lighter load on his end, come out of confinement," she said. "I don't know why this had to happen to him."

Follow Eric Andrew-Gee on Twitter: @ericandrewgeeOpens in a new window
Follow Kathryn Blaze Baum on Twitter: @KBlazeBaumOpens in a new window

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