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Canada High ratio of segregated inmates have mental-health issues, data show

The Fort McPherson gravesite where Eddie Snowshoe lies buried.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Ontario's solitary-confinement cells hold a high proportion of inmates who have mental-health issues and other medical challenges, including one prisoner who has spent more than four years in isolation, according to figures released by the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

The commission made the numbers public on Tuesday, at a briefing where Chief Commissioner Renu Mandhane relayed the case of one aboriginal inmate she'd met who has languished in segregation so long – more than 1,500 days – that his capacities for speech and memory have deteriorated.

"It was really disturbing for me personally," Ms. Mandhane said of the encounter at Thunder Bay Jail. "I've been in a lot of prisons and spoken to a lot of prisoners. This had a surreal quality to it that was unlike other experiences I've had."

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Related: Ontario's plan to reform solitary confinement policies fall short: critics

Read more:The death of Eddie Snowshoe

The commission's figures largely corroborate statistics compiled and published by The Globe and Mail earlier this year, including a virtually identical finding for the ratio of segregated inmates with mental-health issues: 38.2 per cent.

Between October and December of 2015, roughly one in five Ontario inmates spent at least a day in solitary confinement, according to the commission.

Just 4.7 per cent of those placements were carried out at the request of the prisoner.

The disclosure comes as jurisdictions across Canada and around the world are facing heightened public scrutiny of the way they isolate inmates. On Monday, Ontario's Corrections Minister announced several interim measures and an external review aimed at curbing the number of inmates in solitary.

On average, segregated inmates in Ontario spent 16.2 days in segregation, with 1,383 placements lasting more than 15 days, the international threshold beyond which the United Nations has called for an outright prohibition.

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The longest stretch in solitary shown in the data topped out at 939 days.

But on Oct. 7, Ms. Mandhane met with an inmate in Thunder Bay who said he had been housed in a solitary cell for more than 1,500 days. The Chief Commissioner said she was able to confirm the duration with prison officials.

His period in isolation was not captured in any of the information provided to the commission, possibly because his segregation clock was reset after a transfer from Kenora Jail.

The restarting of segregation clocks was found to be a factor in the cases of Ashley Smith and Eddie Snowshoe, two federal inmates whose deaths in solitary confinement cells three years apart galvanized public support for segregation reform across the country. The federal correctional service has since phased out the practice.

Ms. Mandhane's encounter with the Thunder Bay inmate took place by happenstance. After she announced her intention to tour the facility earlier this month, a concerned correctional officer reached out to alert her to the presence of a young aboriginal man who'd logged more than 1,500 days in solitary.

But as jail officials took her on a tour around the facility's segregation unit, she saw no such inmate.

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Only when she asked her hosts specifically about the man's case did they lead her down to a windowless floor of the 90-year-old neo-Gothic penitentiary.

There, at the end of a range, was the young man, sitting in a cell lined with Plexiglas and illuminated by 24-hour light, she said.

"He told me he had difficulty speaking as well as he used to because of the lack of human contact," she said. "He also talked about how the presence of artificial light made it such that he couldn't perceive the difference between day and night, that he couldn't recall time periods in the past at all. He also mentioned to me several incidents of self-harm and showed me scars related to those incidents."

The inmate's lawyer later identified him as Adam Capay, who was 19 years of age when he was charged with first-degree murder in the death of another inmate at Thunder Bay Correctional Centre in 2012.

Mr. Capay is in the process of retaining lawyer Anthony Bryant to represent him. Mr. Bryant has little direct knowledge of Mr. Capay's prison conditions, but said he's being held in solitary against his will.

"I can assure he has not chosen to be in segregation," Mr. Bryant said.

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Despite Ms. Mandhane's shock, she says she was sympathetic to the guards watching over Mr. Capay. "I actually do think that the correctional officers, their hands are tied in the face of the lack of alternative measures to deal with people with mental health issues," she said.

In an e-mailed statement, ministry spokesman Greg Flood said the government does not discuss individual inmates. "Generally speaking, there are times when inmates will be required to remain in segregation for extended periods of time," he said. "This can occur, for example, if an inmate must be kept separated from the general population for their own safety or the safety of others while awaiting trial."

The province launched its internal segregation review last year to fulfill the terms of a legal settlement in the case of Christina Jahn, who spent more than 200 days in solitary confinement without significant mental health treatment.

The settlement forced the government to undertake a series of "public interest remedies," including a review of administrative segregation and a vow to avoid segregation for inmates with mental health issues until other placement options have been exhausted.

On Monday, the provincial Corrections Minister, David Orazietti, announced several tweaks to segregation policy as well as a second segregation review.

"Our government is committed to significantly reducing both the number of people in segregation and the length of time individuals spend there," he said.

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