The story of Adam Capay’s maltreatment in a Thunder Bay jail emerged bit by bit, impeded by court-ordered publication bans and bureaucratic logjams.
But now the story is known, thanks to the Crown’s decision not to appeal a judge’s stay of proceedings in the murder case against Mr. Capay. It is worth recounting in some detail.
In June 2012, Mr. Capay was put in “administrative segregation” after stabbing another inmate to death with a pen.
During his first two months in solitary, he was kept in extreme isolation, never receiving a psychiatric evaluation or basic attention from prison staff, who were instructed not to enter into “discussions” with him. His tiny cell was lined with Plexiglas and kept brightly lit around the clock. Its toilet could only be flushed from the outside by a guard.
During this time, Mr. Capay had violent fantasies that a psychiatrist later concluded were likely triggered in part by his seclusion.
In those early months, local and regional prison authorities were required to conduct more than a dozen reviews of Mr. Capay’s segregation, in keeping with provincial rules designed to ensure solitary imprisonment does not last longer than it needs to. Instead, they conducted no reviews for almost three months.
Throughout the rest of his stay in solitary, reviews of his case appear to have remained irregular and perfunctory. At one point, a senior administrator at the jail acknowledged that Mr. Capay “may have slipped through the cracks.”
Mr. Capay would ultimately spend 1,647 days in solitary, most of those in the perpetually lit cell.
One expert witness described the Thunder Bay jail as filthy and in a state of ill-repair, among the worst such facilities she had ever seen. Photos of one of Mr. Capay’s cells bear out her impression.
He was only allowed short trips to the “yard” – which wasn’t a yard at all, but rather a fenced-in structure with a roof and no view of the sky, basically a cage within a cage.
It is widely acknowledged that prolonged solitary confinement can constitute a form of torture, but its effect on Mr. Capay’s mental health was particularly horrifying. By 2016, he was harming himself on a regular basis.
At different points, he stabbed himself with a pencil in the cheek, foreskin and through the ribs. He also banged his head against a wall until it bled. He suffered from hallucinations.
It is hardly surprising that Renu Mandhane, chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission and the woman who uncovered Mr. Capay’s case, is among a chorus of researchers and activists calling for the end of solitary confinement. The practice is so often cruel and inhumane that it can be hard to see any value in it.
Certainly, the status quo can’t stand. Judges in Ontario and British Columbia have said as much in the past couple of years, when they struck down parts of the federal law governing solitary confinement.
The Liberal government responded with legislation, still working its way through Parliament, that takes a balanced approach, essentially opting to make solitary less draconian without eliminating it.
The bill tries to address the three elements that made Mr. Capay’s experience so appalling: the sheer length of time he spent in isolation, the harshness and squalor of his conditions, and the arbitrary and careless treatment of his case.
Bill C-83 would create separate units designed for inmates who can’t be housed with the general prison population, whether for their safety or that of others, while offering them more health and rehabilitation services than are currently available. It would increase the number of hours segregated inmates are allowed out of their cells every day – four instead of two – and allow medical professionals to review decisions to keep prisoners in segregation. Provinces (including Ontario, which was responsible for Mr. Capay) could do worse than to imitate the federal blueprint.
What Ottawa’s proposed law doesn’t do is ban segregation outright, or even mandate a hard cap on the length of time prisoners may spend in isolation. That will be disappointing to some, but it is a practical solution. Some inmates will always require separate housing for safety reasons. It falls to Canadian governments to make sure such housing isn’t a torture chamber like the one Mr. Capay inhabited for four-and-a-half years.