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“The information we have received on his situation is deeply troubling; his family and our entire community is concerned about his mental health and safety,” Chief Bull said.Getty Images/iStockphoto

A First Nations chief has joined the effort to free a young aboriginal man from his four-year stretch in provincial solitary confinement, petitioning Queen's Park to explain why one of his community members has languished in isolation for so long.

The plight of Adam Capay came to light after Renu Mandhane, chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, visited Thunder Bay Jail earlier this month. A correctional officer told her of a prisoner who had been held for more than 1,500 days in administrative segregation – the internal term for indefinite solitary confinement.

When she requested a visit with the isolated inmate, jail officials led her down a stairway to a basement unit with 24-hour light. She said it appeared deserted except for Mr. Capay, who was in a cell surrounded by Plexiglas and illuminated by 24-hour light.

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Ms. Mandhane became so concerned about his circumstances – along with speech and memory problems he displayed during a short conversation – that she relayed the story to two reporters on Tuesday.A correctional employee has confirmed the chief commissioner's account is accurate.

When the chief of Lac Seul First Nation read the story in The Globe and Mail, he called his community's lawyer to devise a means of improving Mr. Capay's circumstances.

"We are looking at all ways we might help this young man's inhumane treatment," Chief Clifford Bull told The Globe.

On Friday, a Toronto-based lawyer for Lac Seul First Nation said she will work over the weekend to help Mr. Capay.

"This kind of solitary confinement violates domestic law and international treaties," said Robin Parker. "We consider ourselves a human rights leader globally, yet at home we mistreat aboriginal people who constitute an appalling percentage of our prison population."

In a letter to Community Safety and Correctional Services Minister David Orazietti, Chief Bull asks whether the jail is upholding legal obligations to treat Mr. Capay as humanely as possible.

"The information we have received on his situation is deeply troubling; his family and our entire community is concerned about his mental health and safety," Mr. Bull writes.

Chief Bull has known Mr. Capay and his family for years, saying he had a troubled life and first landed in jail after small-time vehicle thefts in his home community.

"It was misdemeanour stuff," Chief Bull said. "And for that, he got sent away to Thunder Bay."

Serving time at Thunder Bay Correctional Centre in 2012, Mr. Capay, then 19 years of age, allegedly stabbed and killed another inmate. He was charged with first-degree murder and moved to the jail to await trial.

Last year, the proceedings were delayed so psychiatrists could assess Mr. Capay's fitness to stand trial, according to a report in the Thunder Bay Chronicle Journal. He was cleared to face the charge.

"It was shocking when we heard about this," Mr. Bull said of the murder charge. "My take on it is that he was intimidated by other inmates because he was small and not yet a man when he was sent there. He was pushed."

The John Howard Society of Ontario has also taken an interest in the Capay case. The organization provides services for convicts and advocates for a more humane correctional system.

"We have heard of cases of this magnitude outside of Ontario, but this is one of the most egregious from this province that has ever come to our attention," said Graham Brown, policy analyst for the society. "If it weren't for Renu's persistence, this case would never have made the light of day. We wonder how many other Adam Capays there are in this province."

Plexiglas cells are rare, but not unheard of in Canada. "We are told they are used to prevent individuals from throwing anything (i.e. bodily fluids) at the correctional staff," Mr. Brown said in an e-mail.

The use of 24-hour artificial light has been cited as a torture technique in several U.S. lawsuits. Prison officials often say it is the only way to prevent problem inmates from harming themselves.

Ms. Mandhane said the lack of natural light along with constant artificial illumination "made it such that [Mr. Capay] couldn't perceive the difference between day and night, that he couldn't recall time periods in the past at all."

Mr. Capay showed the chief commissioner scars from self-harm incidents.

The government has said it will not speak publicly about individual cases. But a spokesman said inmates can be required to spend extended periods in segregation while awaiting trial for their own safety or the safety of others. "Serious criminal offences can take years to get to trial, meaning some offenders may spend their entire time on remand in segregation," Greg Flood said.