Legally in­no­cent pris­on­ers dy­ing in Canada

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

Nearly 270 peo­ple have died in Cana­dian pro­vin­cial jails over the past five years. Two-thirds of them were legally in­no­cent. The high num­ber of deaths among pris­on­ers await­ing trial, com­piled by Reuters from data pro­vided by pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ments, is the re­sult of some of the world’s tough­est bail prac­tices that have led to over­crowd­ing in jails, ac­cord­ing to lawyers, prison of­fi­cers and pris­oner rights ad­vo­cates.

While the grow­ing pop­u­la­tion of pris­on­ers await­ing trial has been well doc­u­mented, the dis­pro­por­tion­ate death toll in pro­vin­cial jails has not. Pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ments de­clined to iden­tify the dead, cit­ing pri­vacy con­cerns. In­ter­views, in­quest doc­u­ments and news re­ports, how­ever, show the de­ceased pris­on­ers await­ing trial ranged from young par­ents who had breached bail con­di­tions to peo­ple with chronic men­tal ill­ness jailed for ut­ter­ing threats; from ac­cused mur­der­ers to ad­dicts jailed for theft or drug-re­lated charges.

Reuters ex­am­ined deaths in pro­vin­cial jails from Jan 2012 through July 2017 for seven of 10 Cana­dian provinces. Of the re­main­ing three, one had no deaths and the other two did not pro­vide data bro­ken down by cus­to­dial sta­tus. The re­view found that 174 peo­ple died in pro­vin­cial jails while await­ing trial, com­pared to 80 who died while serv­ing sen­tences. Th­ese fig­ures are high even when one takes into ac­count the dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­ber of pre-trial de­tainees in jails: Peo­ple await­ing trial com­prised 56 per­cent of all in­mates in th­ese provinces over that time pe­riod, but 65 per­cent of the dead.

“Cana­di­ans are dy­ing in pris­ons here in Canada on a reg­u­lar ba­sis and it gets very lit­tle at­ten­tion,” said lawyer Kevin Egan, who rep­re­sents sev­eral in­mates su­ing On­tario’s pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment over con­di­tions in their jails. All the provinces Reuters spoke with said in­mate and of­fi­cer safety are their top pri­or­ity and that they take all in-cus­tody deaths se­ri­ously.

The of­fice of Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau’s jus­tice min­is­ter de­clined to com­ment, not­ing that the jails were the re­spon­si­bil­ity of the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ments. Pris­on­ers await­ing trial ac­counted for 59 per­cent of the to­tal num­ber of in­mates in pro­vin­cial jails in 2015, up from 27 per­cent in 1995, ac­cord­ing to Sta­tis­tics Canada. By com­par­i­son, peo­ple who have not been con­victed make up about 20 per­cent of in­mates in state and lo­cal in­sti­tu­tions in the United States, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. ad­vo­cacy group, the Prison Pol­icy Ini­tia­tive.

‘We’re Not Just Cov­er­ing Our Butts’

High-pro­file crimes com­mit­ted by peo­ple on bail and politi­cians’ “tough-on-crime” rhetoric have cre­ated a riska­verse cli­mate among pros­e­cu­tors, said Si­mon Fraser Univer­sity crim­i­nol­o­gist Ni­cole My­ers. But the pres­i­dent of the Cana­dian As­so­ci­a­tion of Crown Coun­sel, which rep­re­sents pros­e­cu­tors, dis­putes that. “We’re not just cov­er­ing our butts when we’re con­sid­er­ing bail,” Rick Wood­burn said. “Each time a Crown at­tor­ney re­leases some­body, it’s on them. It’s on them when (the ac­cused goes) back out and they com­mit an­other crime. It’s the No. 1 thing that weighs on a Crown at­tor­ney’s mind,” he said.

The gov­ern­ments of Al­berta, Saskatchewan, Man­i­toba, On­tario, Que­bec, New Brunswick and Nova Sco­tia told Reuters they were re­view­ing their pe­nal sys­tems in an ef­fort to re­duce the num­ber of peo­ple locked up while await­ing trial. Sev­eral said they were also try­ing to im­prove jail pro­ce­dures to en­sure bet­ter care of pris­on­ers. Man­i­toba, which launched a re­view af­ter a spate of deaths at a pre-trial de­ten­tion cen­ter last year, is the only prov­ince in­ves­ti­gat­ing deaths among pris­on­ers await­ing trial.

In neigh­bor­ing Saskatchewan, each in-cus­tody death is re­viewed on a case-by-case ba­sis, Jus­tice Min­istry spokesman Noel Busse wrote in an email. “At this time, the Min­istry has not done an in-depth anal­y­sis of why there are more deaths in re­mand cus­tody than there are in sen­tenced cus­tody,” he said. Seventy-five per­cent of deaths in cus­tody in Saskatchewan over the past five years have in­volved pris­on­ers await­ing trial, the Reuters re­view shows.

‘He Was at Risk’

When Adam Reed, 30, ar­rived at On­tario’s North Bay jail in Nov 2012, charged with as­sault and vi­o­lat­ing his bail con­di­tions, the in­take of­fi­cer noted that Reed said he had re­cently at­tempted sui­cide, an in­quest into Reed’s death later heard. A nurse eval­u­ated Reed and did not deem him a sui­cide risk, ac­cord­ing to in­quest doc­u­ments. She told the in­quest she had not re­ceived the in­take of­fi­cer’s notes. Only hours af­ter be­ing ar­rested, Reed was found hang­ing from his cell door.

Reed, who was an al­co­holic, had said if he ever went back to jail he would take his life, his god­mother Suzanne La­jambe told Reuters. “So we were aware he was at risk. You al­ways be­lieve that when they suf­fer from ad­dic­tion they’re bet­ter off and safer in cus­tody than on their own. We be­lieved that. Un­til that hap­pened.”

In re­sponse to the in­quest, the jail im­ple­mented a new sui­cide screen­ing pro­ce­dure, a spokesman for On­tario Cor­rec­tions Min­is­ter Marie-France Lalonde said. Al­most as many peo­ple died in On­tario jails in the first half of this year (13) as died in all of last year (14), pro­vin­cial data shows. All but two were pris­on­ers await­ing trial. On­tario At­tor­ney-Gen­eral Yasir Naqvi told Reuters he wanted to end the “churn” of peo­ple cy­cling in and out of the pe­nal sys­tem. “Peo­ple, es­pe­cially those who are low-risk and vul­ner­a­ble, can be re­leased un­der su­per­vi­sion as op­posed to be­ing re­manded,” he said.

Causes of Death

Reuters traced the causes of death for 148 of the 174 cases through in­quests, gov­ern­ment data in­ter­views and news re­ports. Of those: 50 were sui­cides 34 were by nat­u­ral causes, which in­cludes ill­nesses and health con­di­tions Nine were drug- or al­co­hol-re­lated Four were homi­cides Four were ac­ci­den­tal One fol­lowed an al­ter­ca­tion with prison of­fi­cers 46 were des­ig­nated “un­de­ter­mined” by pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ments, which means an in­ves­ti­ga­tion is on­go­ing or an in­quest is pend­ing

Sev­eral fac­tors have cre­ated the con­di­tions for the high body count, lawyers, for­mer in­mates and for­mer cor­rec­tions of­fi­cers say. Newly ar­rived pris­on­ers who are await­ing trial are more likely to have high amounts of drugs or al­co­hol in their sys­tems and so are more at risk of over­dos­ing or suf­fer­ing po­ten­tially life-threat­en­ing with­drawal symp­toms. Three for­mer in­mates told Reuters they have had pre­scrip­tion med­i­ca­tion con­fis­cated or have failed to get med­i­cal at­ten­tion as they shut­tle to and from court.

Peo­ple with a his­tory of self-harm may not be watched closely be­cause their sui­cide risk is not com­mu­ni­cated to jail staff who are al­ready over-stretched in crowded fa­cil­i­ties, lawyers and for­mer cor­rec­tions of­fi­cers told Reuters. Sus­pects picked up on mi­nor charges are also some­times housed along­side those with a his­tory of vi­o­lence.

Canada’s pro­vin­cial jails of­ten have lit­tle to no clas­si­fi­ca­tion based on a per­son’s crim­i­nal his­tory, risk level or med­i­cal needs, said Howard Sapers, Canada’s for­mer fed­eral pris­ons watch­dog who is now ad­vis­ing On­tario on its planned re­form. As a re­sult, he said, oth­er­wise man­age­able risks like ill­ness or vul­ner­a­bil­ity to vic­tim­iza­tion can be­come fa­tal. Erez Raz, a union of­fi­cial and for­mer cor­rec­tional of­fi­cer in Al­berta, said over­crowd­ing and the “re­volv­ing door” of pre-trial de­tainees made it dif­fi­cult for cor­rec­tional of­fi­cers to keep peo­ple safe and cre­ated a pres­sure cooker sit­u­a­tion for in­mates.

El­iz­a­beth Cromwell al­leges that strained en­vi­ron­ment con­trib­uted to her son’s death. Cromwell is su­ing the Nova Sco­tia gov­ern­ment af­ter her 23-year-old son died of a methadone over­dose three years ago while await­ing trial for breach­ing court con­di­tions on past drug charges. It isn’t clear how he ob­tained the methadone, but Cromwell al­leges in her law­suit that the jail where her son died was “over­crowded, un­der­staffed and un­safe.”

The pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment has de­nied the al­le­ga­tion, say­ing the jail “met the stan­dard of care and did not ex­pose Clay­ton Cromwell to any un­usual or ac­tion­able risks or dan­gers.”

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