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Edward (Eddie) Snowshoe, back row, right, with his mother and three brothers. family handout for Patrick White story.

When Don Head, the Commissioner of Correctional Service Canada, replied to a blistering judicial report on the death of Edward Snowshoe – a prisoner with mental-health issues who hanged himself after 162 days in solitary confinement – was there any chance he was going to admit his institution messed up?

We've learned to set our expectations low when it comes time for government agencies to apologize for bureaucratic mistakes, or worse. Mr. Head's response to a damning report by Alberta Justice James Wheatley is in keeping with the usual stonewalling and diversionary tactics.

Mr. Head terms Mr. Snowshoe's death "tragic," but any further signs of compassion for a wasted life or the inhumanity of Mr. Snowshoe's isolation – his 162 days of segregation started when he brandished a knife-shaped juice box – are buried in a numbing narration of policy directives that skirt the particulars of why an inmate was so easily failed.

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"How does a juice box knife end up with 162 days in segregation?" asked Justice Wheatley in exasperation. Mr. Head responds by outlining the policy on security classifications, with its associated risk dimensions, actuarial measures and clinical appraisals. He then sidesteps the judge's question and asserts that Mr. Snowshoe's segregation "was a result of the inmate's continued aggressive behaviour while segregated, as well as the mechanisms of, and the actualization of transfer process."

Prizes to anyone who can spot the mea culpa here: Staff at Mr. Snowshoe's new prison didn't know how long he'd been in solitary at his previous prison, nor were they well-informed about his suicidal tendencies or mental-health history. So much for the "actualization of the transfer process." As for his "continued aggressive behaviour," testimony contradicts Mr. Head's assertion.

Mr. Snowshoe's suicide had some impact on the Correctional Service: Mr. Head notes policy changes, including the computerized recording of segregation time and the obligation to confer over high-risk cases before transfers are made between prisons.

But until corrections officials can bring themselves to talk about where they went wrong, it will remain hard to believe they are getting it right.

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