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Solitary confinement: How four people’s stories have changed Canada’s hearts, minds and laws​

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Solitary confinement: How four people's stories have changed hearts, minds and laws on the issue

In June, Ottawa took a step toward a 15-day limit on solitary confinement in federal prisons, curbing a practice that critics call torture that endangers the lives of mentally ill inmates. It took a series of high-profile human tragedies to bring Canadian governments to this point. Here are a few, and how The Globe covered them


Pictured above, from left: Ashley Smith, who killed herself in an Ontario prison in 2007; Eddie Snowshoe, who killed himself in an Edmonton prison in 2010; Richard Wolfe, who died in prison in 2016 after months in solitary confinement; and Adam Capay, who was kept in solitary for about 1,600 days in a Thunder Bay jail awaiting trial.

Coralee Smith stands next to portraits of her daughter, Ashley Smith, at her home in Dartmouth, N.S., in December, 2014.

Ashley Smith, Part I

How did a 19-year-old woman strangle herself to death while prison guards watched and videotaped it? That was the unsettling question raised by the 2007 jailhouse death of Ashley Smith, who had spent 1,047 days in solitary confinement and been placed on high suicide watch when she died at Ontario's Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, Ont. It took years of litigation and investigation to answer the question. In 2013, a coroner's inquest decided her death wasn't a suicide at all – it was homicide, the result of a broken and indifferent prison system and orders from senior management that guards shouldn't intervene as long as she was still breathing. The inquest made 104 recommendations on how to treat mentally ill prisoners more humanely, including the abolishment of indefinite solitary confinement. Two years later, one of newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's first acts was to ask cabinet to implement recommendations arising from the inquest. (More on that below.)

In 2014, a year after the inquest's decision, Ashley Smith's mother, Coralee, wrote in The Globe that her daughter's death would not be the last time solitary confinement would put Canadian inmates in harm's way:

I feel that Ashley and I have been let down. I fear that Ashley’s experience is being repeated over and over again, in the cases of Kinew James and Edward Snowshoe and other people. Ottawa’s dismissive response to these recommendations means that history could repeat itself, and Ashley’s ordeal will become someone else’s.

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At Effie Bella Snowshoe’s home in Fort McPherson, NWT, a framed photo of her late son Eddie is displayed on a wall on July 23, 2014.

Eddie Snowshoe

Soon after the Ashley Smith inquest, Alberta began asking difficult questions about the suicide of Eddie Snowshoe, a First Nations man who spent 162 days in solitary confinement before hanging himself with a sheet on Aug. 13, 2010. Three years in prison had turned Mr. Snowshoe from a shy young man to a chronically suicidal inmate. In 2014, The Globe's Patrick White explored the circumstances that brought Mr. Snowshoe to that point; how an Alberta fatality inquiry belatedly acknowledged how the system failed him; and how Mr. Snowshoe's mother, Effie, saw tragedy coming for her son in prison and struggled with grief when it finally did:

Every time Ms. Snowshoe closes her eyes at night, she says she sees Eddie in a dark room. She had been told she should seek justice or money or both. The one thing she seeks, she can’t have: ‘I want him back.’

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Richard Wolfe holds a photo of his late brother, Daniel Wolfe, on a hilltop near Richard’s home in Fort Qu’Appelle, Sask., in 2011.

Richard Wolfe

The Wolfe name was a notorious one in Canadian prisons: The Wolfe brothers, Richard and Daniel, co-founded the mostly Indigenous Indian Posse gang in the late 1980s, making them many enemies in rival gangs. Richard Wolfe wasn't a part of the gang any more when, in 2014, he began serving a sentence for sexual assault. But with death threats coming in from other inmates and his family worried about his safety, prison officials put Mr. Wolfe into solitary confinement – where he stayed for 640 days. Through letters and phone calls with The Globe's Joe Friesen – who wrote a book about Daniel Wolfe and the history of the Indian Posse – Richard Wolfe gave a detailed account of how solitary confinement affected him:

It’s been a roller coaster, up and down. I really had some bad times, some bad thoughts. You just start thinking along the lines of maybe this is it, maybe this is how I’m going to end it. Suicide is probably one of the main things down here. I pretty much went through that. I was going to end my life. ... I didn’t think I could do it. I didn’t think I could stay down here in the hole that long.

Richard Wolfe, who had a history of heart trouble, collapsed in a prison exercise yard on May 27, 2016, and died in hospital. He was 40 years old.

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Adam Capay spent nearly 1,600 days in solitary confinement at the Thunder Bay Jail until last year.

Adam Capay

In the fall of 2016, a prison guard's tipoff to Ontario's chief human-rights commissioner revealed to Canadians that Adam Capay – a 23-year-old First Nations man held at the Thunder Bay Jail – had spent four years in solitary confinement without trial. Under pressure from the commissioner, advocacy groups, First Nations and editorials from The Globe and Mail, he was moved to a mental-health facility last December: In all, he had spent 1,636 days in solitary. In the weeks and months that followed, Ontario's cabinet minister in charge of the prison system quit; an ombudsman's report found serious problems in the province's monitoring systems and discovered most of the paperwork in Mr. Capay's case wasn't accurate or complete; and last month, Ontario prisons adviser Howard Sapers released a plan to limit solitary confinement to no more than 15 days at a time. This is part of his report:

Whether it is due to inadequate legislation, poorly crafted policies, lack of staff resources, insufficient training, crumbling physical infrastructure or simply a lack of space, the result is the same: segregation has become the multi-purpose default to respond to diverse correctional challenges. This inappropriate use of segregation must stop.

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A court exhibit photo from the 2013 Ashley Smith inquest shows the inside of the prison where she was held in Kitchener, Ont.

Ashley Smith, Part II

On Monday, federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale invoked the Ashley Smith case as the Liberal government introduced C-56, a bill to eventually bring a 15-day limit to solitary confinement in federal prisons:

The case that had the largest effect was Ashley Smith. That’s a case that really made the point that there was a young woman caught up in the correctional system that did not treat her circumstances appropriately, and, tragically, she died.

The government still faces a lawsuit from the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and John Howard Society of Canada over its use of solitary confinement, which they filed in January, 2015. The trial is due to start in Vancouver on July 4.

As of Monday, 399 federal inmates were in segregation, according to federal prison ombudsman Ivan Zinger. Ninety-four of those had been in solitary for more than 60 days.

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The Globe's view

Read more of The Globe's editorials about solitary confinement and the cases described above.


With reports from Patrick White, Joe Friesen and Adrian Morrow

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