I have been privileged to visit Fort McPherson, in the Northwest Territories, a number of times since 2011. It is a pleasant little Gwich’in community located on the banks of the Peele River southwest of Inuvik, within sight of the Richardson Mountains to the west. It is one of the few remote northern communities connected to the rest of Canada by road: the Dempster Highway. The Dempster name conjures up what is probably the settlement’s best known historical event, for it was from here that Cpl. Norman Dempster left in 1911 to find the R.C.M.P.’s “Lost Patrol” which had disappeared a year earlier. The recovered bodies of the four officers now rest in the little graveyard next to the Anglican church.
Now, another citizen of Fort McPherson is in the news, albeit for very different, if also equally tragic, reasons. This article should be mandatory reading for all Canadians, for it is in our name that our correctional system acts, and responds – or fails to respond – to the needs of our fellow citizens imprisoned within it. Thanks to Patrick White and the Globe and Mail, Canadians have been made aware of the sad story of Eddie Snowshoe, a young aboriginal man who ended up imprisoned in southern Canadian penitentiaries, and who ultimately hung himself in Edmonton Institution in 2010. Mr. White’s expose, “Who Killed Eddie Snowshoe: the fatal sentence of solitary confinement” (Globe and Mail, December 5, 2014), highlights various failings of our federal correctional system, including our continuing use of solitary confinement in our penitentiaries. This article should be mandatory reading for all Canadians, for it is in our name that our correctional system acts, and responds – or fails to respond – to the needs of our fellow citizens imprisoned within it.
Eddie Snowshoe is a male counterpart to Ashley Smith, the young woman who committed suicide in a Kitchener penitentiary in 2007, as correctional officers stood and watched. In Mr. Snowshoe’s case, correctional staff did not stand and watch; indeed, when they discovered his body they did all they could to revive him, but it was by then too late. But his penitentiary history, and that of Ms. Smith, are remarkably similar: both spent inordinate periods in solitary confinement (a total of 2,000 days for Ms. Smith; in Mr. Snowshoe’s case, 162 consecutive days ending when he killed himself. Both showed increasingly serious signs of mental illness and instability; and both had histories of self-harm and attempts at suicide while imprisoned.
Almost 20 years ago, calls began for a “cap” of 60 days in long-term segregation due to its mental health impacts. A year after the death of Ashley Smith, the Correctional Investigator (an ombudsman for inmate concerns and issues) issued a report identifying a number of the flaws and failings which led to her death, and recommending changes to prevent such tragedies in the future. The Correctional Service did not respond; many of the lessons which should have been learned from the case of Ashley Smith were thus ignored or overlooked in the situation of Eddie Snowshoe.
Even now, four years after Mr. Snowshoe killed himself, it seems that our government sees no reason to change its policies or practices concerning solitary confinement of our citizens, including those with mental health problems, despite other western democracies moving away from this barbaric habit. Follow-up stories in the Globe and Mail have detailed how Britain has long attempted to avoid putting inmates into solitary confinement for extended periods (if at all), and how some American states are moving to reduce their reliance upon this practice in light of the well-known significant and long-term mental health impacts upon prisoners held in such conditions. However, according to Mr. White the Correctional Service of Canada declined to comment or take part in his article or research, except for somewhat unresponsive and unhelpful confirmations that Canadian law permits the use of segregation.
At one time, Canadians could take some pride in their correctional system. There was always room for improvement, but in a number of ways we set an example for the world. Other countries, including the United States, sent representatives here to study our methods. As the name suggests, our system long focused upon the correction of criminal conduct, as opposed to emphasizing punishment and retribution. Persons such as Eddie Snowshoe – who, it cannot be denied, committed a serious and violent criminal offence – were sent into custody as punishment, and not for punishment. Once imprisoned, the goal of the system was to attempt to reform and rehabilitate – to “correct”, in other words – so when the inevitable release date arrived, the individual would be better able to rejoin the rest of society.
But in 2014, under a government which clearly sees the lives and well-being of some as worth less than others, we continue to be headed in a different direction. People like Eddie Snowshoe are expendable, or at least not worth saving, because they have broken the law. Thus, Stephen Harper and his Conservatives continue to pass laws leading to more and more prisoners being crammed for longer and longer periods into aging institutions meant to house much lower numbers of people. Even if there was a political will and interest in responding to the special needs of the mentally challenged prisoner (whose numbers are also increasing), resources with which to do so continue to be restricted. Persons such as Eddie Snowshoe – who, it cannot be denied, committed a serious and violent criminal offence – were sent into custody as punishment, and not for punishment. Rather than dealing with such persons in humane and compassionate ways – ways which might actually address their underlying problems, including at least sometimes, the behaviours which led to their imprisonment in the first place – it is easier and more satisfying, as part of a “tough on crime” agenda to simply warehouse these troubles, including in segregation cells deep inside our penitentiaries and prisons.
A Federal Court judge once commented that “as long as they remain inside the walls, [prisoners] are, to our national disgrace, almost universally unseen and unthought of…”. The cases of Smith, Snowshoe and all of the other 1800 inmates who are held in solitary confinement on any given day – and the even larger and growing numbers of prisoners who suffer mental health problems – demand our urgent and on-going attention. They are, after all, our fellow citizens. It has often been said that the measure of a society can be taken by how it treats its most lowly and marginalized members. We are clearly failing this group of fellow citizens, and that reflects badly upon us all.
Contrary to the guiding views and approach of our current government, meeting the needs of the incarcerated mentally ill is not to “reward” criminal behavior, nor does it amount to coddling the undeserving. Rather, effectively and humanely treating the unwell is the most likely way to prevent further reoffending when these citizens are ultimately released back into our communities across the country – and simply the right thing to do.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are entirely those of the author.