The Globe public editor explains how an error can slip into a story and be repeated for months with no one noticing.

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There are times when an error slips into a story without anyone noticing and it can continue to be repeated for months. In this case, it started in July with a story on the report into the death of Edward Snowshoe, a young inmate who killed himself after being in segregation for 162 days.

That article drew parallels with Ashley Smith, the New Brunswick teen who also died after a lengthy term in segregation cells.

How lengthy was the source of the original error. That July story said she spent 11 months in segregation cells at several prisons before taking her own life. That time referred to her time in federal prisons, but she was also held provincially.

The story also said incorrectly that she spent more than 2,000 days in segregation. That should have raised questions about a discrepancy in numbers even though the 11 months was just federal time.

The writer cannot remember how the error was made, but this month, after six more stories repeated that 2,000 number, a reader wrote in to question how that could be true.

Before a correction was written, I wanted to know what the true number was. A Globe and Mail reporter looked into the matter and found that it was not in the Snowshoe report that was the basis of the original report. The federal prison ombudsman, the Smith family lawyer and a spokesperson for the coroner’s office all said they do not recall hearing a precise figure. It’s worth noting that there are different definitions of what solitary confinement or administrative segregation is.

So here is the reporter’s best estimate:

“According to a June, 2008, report from New Brunswick Ombudsman and Child and Youth Advocate Bernard Richard, Ms. Smith’s time in custody can be traced back to Oct. 21, 2003, when she was on probation but was arrested and charged for throwing apples at a postal worker. She was then ‘in and out of’ the New Brunswick Youth Centre a total of five times, typically being released until a ‘new incident’ that put her back into custody. That continued until Dec. 29, 2003, when she was then sentenced to her first lengthy incarceration, the report says. She then stayed until Feb. 26, 2004, was released briefly (‘hours,’ the report says) and readmitted until Feb. 10 of the next year, 2005. She was released again and once again put back in on Feb. 14, 2005. From that point she was there until Oct. 5, 2006, the report says. It notes no other transfers, but also says she spent ‘most of the remainder of her time [after that] as an incarcerated youth.’ ”

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