A review of deaths in custody in three Canadian provinces.

AuthorAntonowicz, Daniel
PositionOntario, Alberta, British Columbia

In Canada and internationally, there has been a growing interest in examining in-custody deaths (see, generally, Amnesty International 2012). When a person is deprived of her/his liberty, under law, the state then assumes responsibility for protecting that person's human rights as well as ensuring her or his safety. In response to several high-profile in-custody deaths in Canada and, in some cases, a rise in such events in prisons, in police detention, in mental health facilities, and in youth custody centres, academic researchers and government officials have been devoting increasing attention to investigating the causes and circumstances surrounding such deaths. Specifically, in relation to deaths of people being held in custody, there have been several notable studies internationally. They include Lyneham, Joudo Larsen, and Beacroft (2010), and Cunneen (2006) in Australia; Gabor (2007) and Wobeser, Datema, Bechard, and Ford (2002) in Canada; Kim, Ting, Puisis, Rodriguez, Benson, Mennella, and Davis (2007), and Mumola (2005) in the United States; and in the United Kingdom, the Forum for Preventing Deaths in Custody (2007). One of the first books to provide an international overview of deaths in custody (specifically, suicide and death caused by poor health) was Liebling and Ward (1994).

While in many ways similar to deaths among persons not in custody, deaths in custody are more likely to result from some form of violence, such as suicide, accidental poisoning (i.e., drug overdose), or homicide (Wobeser et al. 2002). Researchers have suggested that some of these deaths may, in fact, have been preventable (Camilleri and McArthur 2008). In custodial settings, where people are closely monitored and supervised, some deaths, especially suicides (due to hanging or other self-inflicted injuries), are viewed as a failure of the state's duty of care. Although in-custody deaths due to violent causes are comparatively infrequent, they, nevertheless, tend to generate considerable media scrutiny and public unease. Examination of deaths due to unnatural causes can provide valuable information on risk factors (e.g., substance abuse) that may have contributed to these deaths. See, for example, the tragic case of 14-year-old Adam Rickwood of England, detailed in a story reported in the Sunday Mirror, who, in January of 2011, committed suicide after being struck by a warden (Rickwood 2011).

Another important difference between deaths of those in custody and those in the community is the younger age at which incarcerated persons are dying from what may be classified as a natural cause of death. The examination of natural deaths can inform us about the health issues that individuals bring to a correctional setting (Kim et al. 2007).

Unfortunately, based on a review of the literature, Canada has lagged behind other countries such as Australia, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and the United States (see, e.g., Cunneen 2006)--in systematically collecting detailed national data on the causes and surrounding circumstances of in-custody deaths. In Australia, for example, the National Deaths in Custody Program (NDICP) is responsible for monitoring the extent and nature of deaths that have occurred in police, prison, and juvenile custody since 1980, regardless of the cause of death (Lyneham et al. 2010). The Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) has coordinated the NDICP since its establishment in 1992, with official data on all custodial deaths between 1980 and 1992 collected retrospectively. Some 60 different pieces of information relating to the circumstances and characteristics of each death are collected through NDICP data-collection forms. The forms are completed by the Australian state and territory custodial authorities (police, prison, and juvenile justice). As reported by the AIC, no other country has consistently collected similar data over such an extended period of time (Cumow and Larsen 2009).

Since 1994, in the United Kingdom, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (formerly known as the Prison Ombudsman) has served as the official vehicle for addressing deaths in custody and then recommending changes to the prison system. As noted in the 2010 annual report of the Ombudsman's office (as cited in Sapers 2010), there has been a notable decline in both the number of deaths and the number of complaints from detention facilities.

Similar, but less comprehensive, efforts have been undertaken in the United States (see Mumola 2005). In response to concerns about in-custody deaths, the Deaths in Custody Reporting Act (DICRA) was passed in 2000 (Mumola 2005). DICRA represents the first national effort in the United States that is devoted to compiling data on in-custody deaths. Since 2000, data has been gathered on deaths that occur in state prisons, local jails, and juvenile (i.e., young offender) correctional facilities. These data are published and are available through the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). In addition, from 2003 onwards, data have been collected on deaths that occur during the process of arrest and while en route to incarceration. Data are collected separately for local jails and state prisons, allowing for ready comparisons. The BJS collects data encompassing a wide spectrum of facts (e.g., individual characteristics, such as time and place of death, cause of death, age of the deceased, their race or ethnicity and gender, etc.), all of which are readily accessible on its web site.

In the United Kingdom, deaths in custody at a national level have been linked to a broader reaching human rights standard. Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights "guarantees the right to life and places duties on the state to take steps to prevent deaths of people in detention and to establish independent investigations into deaths in custody" (UK, Joint Committee on Human Rights 2005:5). In response to that convention, the British House of Commons report (Forum for Preventing Deaths in Custody 2007) points out that the state (i.e., the United Kingdom) has a legal obligation to provide a comprehensive and independent review of all deaths in custody. These independent reviews are performed by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) and its findings are published on its web site "to share the knowledge as widely as possible" (Forum for Preventing Deaths in Custody 2007). Unlike in Canada, the activities of the PPO are open to the public; in fact, in recent years, the PPO has undertaken regular surveys of the families of prisoners whose deaths they have investigated. The information the PPO gathers is then used to inform reviews of, and reforms to, its policies and practices. In addition, the PPO has hired a specialist to provide assistance to PPO staff who may experience undue stress as a result of their duties and workload. The approach to investigating in-custody deaths used in the United Kingdom was recently described by Sapers (2010) as a model from which Canada could perhaps gamer some lessons. For example, the PPO, unlike its Canadian counterpart, has an integrated system that involves all key sectors of the investigation process. Moreover, in the United Kingdom there is greater collaboration between political, organizational, and public sectors, which, as Sapers points out, "may create the focus necessary to bring about more lasting improvements" (Sapers 2010: 6). Finally, the PPO also includes a permanent dedicated advisory body that focuses exclusively on death in custody cases. Overall, in referring to official data only, it would appear that the approach used in Britain is having a positive effect. For example, in 2011, the British Ministry of Justice reported that, between 2002 and 2010, the rate of deaths in custody dropped from 133 to 68 per 100,000 (UK, Ministry of Justice 2011). Furthermore, in England and Wales, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) is required to independently investigate all cases of deaths during or following police contact. The most recent annual report (2011/12) provides support for the potential contribution of the IPCC in reducing the number of deaths in police custody since the IPCC's establishment (Keough 2012).

It is regrettable that, in Canada, there is no systematic national effort to collect detailed information on in-custody deaths. Although the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics (CCJS) collects data on deaths in federal and provincial/territorial correctional custody, the data are not as comprehensive as those maintained in countries such as Australia, the United Kingdom, or the United States. CCJS data are restricted to the number of deaths and the broad causes of death. In addition to lagging behind other countries in collecting data surrounding in-custody deaths, another trend that is considered disconcerting in...

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