Eddie Snowshoe, an Indigenous prisoner from Fort McPherson, N.W.T., had spent 162 days in solitary confinement when his fifth attempt at suicide finally succeeded. Dead at 24, in 2010, he symbolized the cruelty of Canadian prisons -- and the indifference of Canadians toward prison officials who act in our name.
Solitary confinement is torture. Scores of personal narratives have told us, and psychiatrists have often confirmed, that people completely cut off from human content are robbed of their mental and emotional abilities. Without face-to-face talk, they lose their identity, an essential part of their personality. It's something they may never have thought about, but without it they are desolate.
They lose their balance and tumble into a terrifying darkness where anxiety, hallucinations and depression are their reality, day or night. Prisoners often believe they are growing insane and, like Snowshoe, begin thinking of suicide as the only way out.
Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society, has her own perspective on solitary confinement: "If we found out that animals in a Humane Society shelter were being caged in circumstances where they were losing their sanity, injuring themselves, killing themselves, society would respond in a very heartfelt way. I can't imagine why the response is any less with humans involved."
Latimer believes animals in danger will evoke a heartfelt response -- leading, perhaps, to better treatment. But it may be that the same compassion available to caged animals doesn't extend to isolated prisoners. Many people have emotional connections to cats and dogs. But only a few of us have even made the acquaintance of a prisoner. The powerful morality we might hope would end solitary confinement stops short of humans. Everyone has some version of a moral sense but we tend to apply it selectively. If we want to know why solitary confinement still exists, perhaps this is the explanation.
In his tiny cell, Eddie Snowshoe plotted his final suicide attempt. Guards who found his body saw that the floor was covered with shampoo. Apparently he was afraid he might change his mind at the last moment, so he made it impossible to assume a firm standing position to escape from the noose he had devised. His plan was to let nothing get in the way of death. This strikes me as the most pathetic aspect of his story.
Chandra Bozelko, an American woman imprisoned for a series of white-collar crimes, spent a month in solitary. She reported on her ordeal: "Solitary shrinks a person with helplessness. After 30 days in segregation, I emerged gaunt and flappable, scared of everything." She was alone for a fraction of the time Snowshoe was isolated, but it terrified her.
Cases like Snowshoe's were taken up by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and the John Howard Society of Canada. All argued that solitary confinement should be abolished. But it took 17 years before a legal judgment came down -- and even at that, the government is still considering it. It appears that elements in the Correctional Service of Canada believe that permission to inflict this form of misery is essential to the management of prisoners.
It's an appalling example of how clumsily our society treats moral issues. We don't argue them, we don't explore them. We just let the gears of the bureaucracy grind slowly, so that this outrageous affront to humanity goes on indefinitely. As a people, Canadians have no settled moral position on solitary confinement. If it exists as a moral issue at all it lives far away from the centre of our concerns.
In 2012 the UN committee against torture, operating under the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (passed in 1985), decided that Canada was violating the convention. As the UN saw it, Canada's system for dealing with mentally ill prisoners was inadequate and it was using "extensively prolonged solitary confinement to deal with them."
The headline on the Huffington Post's report on that story was "Torture Is Alive and Well in Canada." It was true then and remains true now.