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Editorials Until Canada acts, abuses like those inflicted on Richard Wolfe will continue

Richard Wolfe sits at his kitchen table, displaying some of the jail house tattoos he picked up over the years. He died earlier this year.

Mark Taylor/The Globe and Mail

A man sits alone, confined in a tiny cell, for 23 hours a day. He gets a one-hour break from the solitude each day when he is escorted to a day room with windows. There he can wash, shave, phone his mother, breathe a little fresh air. Then he is taken back to his cell. He paces for hours at a time, the way a caged animal does.

He can hear the other segregated inmates nearby. Some are moaning or talking to the walls. Others are screaming. Some act out violently. Many try to kill themselves. Some succeed.

At a low point, the man steals the blade from a disposable razor. He contemplates opening a vein on his arm, but the thought of his young son living without a father convinces him to keep going.

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In all, this man, Richard Wolfe, would spend close to two straight years in solitary confinement in a Saskatchewan prison while awaiting sentencing on charges of sexually assaulting a woman and beating a man with a baseball bat.

He spent some of that time writing letters and talking on the phone to a Globe and Mail journalist. His words confirm everything we know to be wrong with isolating humans in tiny cells – that long-term, indefinite solitary confinement is torture; that its damaging effects on the mind of a prisoner can be seen after just a month, especially on the many people put in solitary who already have mental-health issues.

Above all, Mr. Wolfe's story reinforces the need to ban segregation lasting more than 15 days, as called for in 2013 by the coroner investigating the death of a federal prisoner, Ashley Smith.

The prison system failed society by failing to rehabilitate Mr. Wolfe, instead subjecting him to a form of torture. If you treated a dog the way the Saskatchewan prison system treated Mr. Wolfe, it would be inhumane, and you might even face criminal charges.

Until Canada and the provinces act to severely limit the use of solitary, abuses like those inflicted on Richard Wolfe will continue. As it is, most provinces don't even know how many prisoners they put in solitary each year.

Mr. Wolfe was sentenced to five years in January and transferred to a federal penitentiary. He died on May 29 of an apparent heart attack. At the time, according to his mother, he was out in the prison exercise yard, enjoying the fresh air.

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