Skip to main content

Prison Hands 2 Collection: iStockphoto Item number: 118657765 Title: Prison Hands 2 Licence type: Royalty-free Max file size (JPEG): 47.5 x 31.7 cm (5,616 x 3,744 px) / 300 dpiGetty Images/iStockphoto

If we are decent people, then Edward Snowshoe's death in a solitary confinement cell in a maximum-security institution will disturb us, and make us change our prison system for good. If it doesn't, Canadians will have to ask themselves whether their country is quite as civilized as we would like to believe.

If this seems overwrought, consider the facts: Mr. Snowshoe, then 24, killed himself in 2010 after 28 days in isolation at the Edmonton Institution. He had arrived at the federal facility a month earlier after being transferred from Stony Mountain Institution, another federal prison where he had already spent 134 days in isolation. He had been segregated because he had somehow made a weapon out of a juice box. He tried to kill himself three times at Stony Mountain before he died, unsupervised and alone, at Edmonton Institution.

Mr. Snowshoe was in prison for robbing and shooting a taxi driver in Inuvik, NWT. He did the crime. This is not in dispute.

But the United Nations has for years been urging countries to ban solitary confinement or limit its use, and to absolutely prohibit it in the case of minors and people with mental illnesses – a practice the UN considers akin to torture. The Correctional Investigator of Canada, Howard Sapers, has repeatedly warned that prolonged segregation (an average of 35 days for male prisoners) is becoming an ever more common way of dealing with troublesome inmates in crowded and cash-strapped federal facilities.

Worse still, a significant number of the federal inmates in segregation at any given moment in Canada suffer from mental illness. Other countries, such as the United Kingdom, have recognized the inherent cruelty of solitary confinement and reduced its use. They know that locking a mentally ill person in an isolation cell will, without question, worsen that person's condition.

Mr. Snowshoe was depressive and suicidal, and he was in isolation for 162 days before he killed himself. His 5 1/2 -year sentence became a death sentence. Ashley Smith, the young woman who killed herself in a federal prison in a depressingly similar case, was also repeatedly segregated – for a total of more than 1,000 days.

Edward Snowshoe's death has once more brought a critical failing to the public's attention. His treatment suggests that many other inmates may be suffering through prison conditions that are counterproductive – remember, almost all will eventually be released to walk our streets – cruel and unusual. Is that who we are?

Editor's note: A previous version of this editorial said incorrectly that Ashley Smith spent more than 2,000 days in some form of segregation. In fact, based on information from prison officials and the Smith family lawyer and different definitions of solitary, the best estimate for the number of days is 1,047 or more than 1,000.