The use of segregation must end in Ontario, a criminal defence lawyer says, after it was revealed that an inmate in the Thunder Bay District Jail has spent four years in solitary confinement.

Ontario's Human Rights Commissioner Renu Mandhane raised alarm about Adam Capay after she visited the 23-year-old earlier this month during a tour of the jail.

Capay, a member of Lac Seul First Nation, spends 23 hours alone in his cell each day, where the light is never turned off. He is permitted out for an hour each day to shower and perhaps make a phone call.

"We know the harm it can cause, we know how devastating it can be and we simply cannot allow it to happen," said lawyer Breese Davies, who was counsel at the Ashley Smith inquest.

Smith was 19 when she died of self-inflicted choking in 2007 after being held in solitary confinement — also called segregation — for 28 months. The inquest ruled her death a homicide and made dozens of recommendations on how mentally ill inmates should be handled.

Breese Davies

'With the proper resources, segregation is not necessary,' says Breese Davies, who was counsel for the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies at the Ashley Smith inquest. (Breese Davies Law)

Mandhane told CBC News that Capay's speech seemed delayed, he was having difficulty distinguishing day from night and he showed evidence of self-harm. She said his situation reminded her of Smith and of Edward Snowshoe, who spent 162 days in segregation before his suicide in 2010.

'It should not happen' 

Capay was sent to jail at 19 on minor charges. After an altercation resulted in the death of another inmate in 2012, Capay was charged with first-degree murder. He has been held in solitary confinement ever since and has not faced trial.

"We need significant, ongoing pressure on both levels of government to put an end to segregation once and for all," said Davies. "It should not happen. With the proper resources, it is not necessary."

Correctional officers at the Thunder Bay District Jail say they have few options for dealing with people like Capay, who exhibits symptoms of mental illness.

"Staff and management have only done what we can do with the resources we have," said Mike Lundy, president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union Local 737, which represents the jail's correctional officers.

Thunder Bay District Jail

According to the union, correctional officers at the Thunder Bay District Jail say they don't have the resources to address the needs of inmates with mental health concerns at the century-old facility. (Jody Porter/CBC)

All seven segregation cells at the century-old Thunder Bay District Jail are constantly full, Lundy said.

"Ideally we'd use segregation to maintain order," he said. "But we can't do that because we're using it for more volatile inmates."

Isolating people with mental health issues can make them worse, Davies said.

"That's not acceptable," she said. "Services need to be made available. They need to provide services to this person so there is no need to keep him in segregation." 

Ontario's Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services launched an external independent review of the use of segregation in the province earlier this month.

As part of the announcement, Minister David Orazietti said changes were being made immediately, including a 15-day limit on the use of disciplinary segregation. 

Capay's solitary confinement, however, is considered administrative segregation — used when an inmate may be a threat to himself or others. Four years adds up to about 1,500 days.

When asked about Capay, a spokesperson said the ministry does not speak publicly about the specifics of any individual case.