Ten months after an Alberta judge released a scathing five-page report on the death of Edward Snowshoe, Canada's prison commissioner has issued a formal response that concedes few mistakes and accuses the aboriginal inmate of "continued aggressive behaviour" – an assertion that contradicts testimony from his own front-line staff.
In a letter addressed to Alberta's Chief Medical Examiner and obtained by The Globe and Mail, Don Head, commissioner of the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC), acknowledges that Mr. Snowshoe's death was "tragic" and "unfortunate," but largely sidesteps troubling assertions contained in the Alberta report, which arose from a public death inquiry held last year.
The letter is Mr. Head's first full reaction to Mr. Snowshoe's death and the subsequent Globe and Mail investigation that prompted opposition parties to question the government in the House of Commons about the use of solitary confinement in Canadian prisons.
Mr. Snowshoe, a 24-year-old aboriginal man from Fort McPherson, NWT, hanged himself with a bedsheet on Aug. 13, 2010. He had spent 162 days in segregation, after having his security classification bumped up from medium to maximum for fashioning a makeshift weapon and holding it menacingly toward prison staff.
While his death gained scant public attention for years, Alberta Justice James Wheatley touched off a wave of stories in 2014 with a public inquiry and report that accused the Correctional Service of letting Mr. Snowshoe fall "through the cracks."
The judge noted that Mr. Snowshoe's suicide and mental-health history were not properly shared, and that his segregation clock was reset when he was transferred from Stony Mountain Institution in Manitoba to Edmonton Institution, leaving staff with no way of knowing the full extent of his solitary spell. He seemed especially troubled that Mr. Snowshoe's situation was neglected when his parole officer went on vacation, and that the serious security incident that originally landed him in segregation involved nothing more than a juice-box folded to look like a knife.
In his response, Mr. Head addresses Justice Wheatley's 12 recommendations one by one, stating that several policies have changed since Mr. Snowshoe's death. Institutions now carry out case conferences with one another when an inmate is transferred, and CSC's internal computer system keeps a permanent record of an inmate's accumulated days in segregation. In some cases, the letter skirts recommendations by restating current policy.
Mr. Head does address the juice-box incident, calling it "one of many issues considered in the review of [Mr. Snowshoe's] security classification by staff." He cites Mr. Snowshoe's "continued aggressive behaviour" as the prime reason for his prolonged period in segregation.
That statement clashes with inquiry testimony from the guard in charge of the segregation unit the night Mr. Snowshoe died. "He was a regular inmate that was very quiet, kept to himself, didn't give us a lot of problems," stated Trevor Kemble, according to transcript obtained by The Globe. "[E]specially on the range that he was on, there's a lot of problematic inmates down there, so – but he was very quiet."
The lawyer who represented the Snowshoe family at the Alberta inquest called Mr. Head's response "very disappointing" and accused the commissioner of a dismissive manner.
"There's a certain tone to the whole response that suggests they don't want to be told what to do," Adrian Wright said. "It largely consists of a regurgitation of what they're already doing. They are not suggesting they will change anything."
The federal prison ombudsman, Howard Sapers, said Mr. Head's response seemed geared toward explaining the status quo rather than addressing the judge's recommendations. "There is a defensiveness and really an unwillingness to acknowledge that things could have been better," he said. "In reality, there are areas that could be and need to be improved."