by Derek Gilna
According to data gathered by the Reuters news agency, which culled records from various Canadian provincial governments, almost 270 prisoners awaiting trial have died over the past five years. Apparently pretrial bail practices in our northern neighbor are in serious need of reform, according to prisoners’ rights advocates.
“Canadians are dying in prisons here in Canada on a regular basis and it gets very little attention,” said attorney Kevin Egan, who represents prisoners in a lawsuit against Ontario’s provincial prisons. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s justice minister directed requests for comment to the provincial governments that supervise the facilities.
As in the U.S., Canadian prisoners who have not yet been convicted are presumed innocent. Such individuals comprise approximately 59 percent of all provincial prisoners, whereas in the United States, pretrial detainees represent only 20 percent of the total prisoner population, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
The reason for this disparity is clear: Canadian Crown prosecutors have become so risk-adverse that they routinely oppose bail requests, fearing that prisoners might commit more crimes while on pretrial release. As Rick Woodburn, president of the Canadian Association of Crown Counsel, noted, “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.”
According to Ontario Attorney General Yasir Naqvi, it is time to stop holding prisoners in pretrial detention, “especially those who are low-risk and vulnerable, [and] can be released under supervision as opposed to being remanded.”
Reuters was able to determine the causes for 148 of the prisoner deaths reported by provincial Canadian governments: 50 were suicides, 34 were due to natural causes, 9 were drug-related, 4 were homicides, 4 were accidental, 1 resulted from a fight with guards and in 46 cases the cause of death was undetermined.
Canadian prisoners’ rights advocates have observed that provincial jails generally have no classification system and do a poor job of classifying prisoners based on their criminal history, medical issues or mental health problems, which increases the risk of injury or death while they are incarcerated.
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