This Prisoners’ Justice Day 2023, August 10, 2023, Tracking (In)Justice: A Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Data and Transparency Project is releasing a memorial of people who have died in custody across Canada since the year 2000.

Deaths in custody are not tracked in a consistent way across Canada, leaving little information available to the public. Our project is a data justice and public criminology research initiative, but our research is about the lives and deaths of people who come into contact with the criminal legal system. Each person who dies in custody is someone with family, friends, and loved ones on the outside. We hope this memorial honours the lives of those lost.

What the memorial tells us about deaths in custody across Canada 

Since the year 2000, there have been a minimum of 1495 deaths in custody across Canada. Between 2000-2022, there were an annual average of 65.9 people who died while in custody across Canada. Currently, in our data which informs the memorial, we have verified 669 deaths in Ontario, 208 deaths in Alberta, 186 deaths in British Columbia, 121 deaths in Quebec, 97 deaths in New Brunswick, 94 deaths in Manitoba, 70 deaths in Saskatchewan, 31 deaths in Nova Scotia, 8 deaths in Newfoundland, 10 deaths in the territories (6 deaths in YT, 3 deaths in NT, 1 death in NU), and 1 death in PEI.  

In the first 6 months of 2023, there have been 45 deaths in custody that we have verified. In 2022, there were 68 deaths verified; in 2021, there are 125 deaths verified; in 2020, 108 deaths were verified, and in 2019, 103 deaths were verified. 

The average age of death across all years is 44.5 years old.

This is a living memorial which means it will continue to grow and develop over time as we work on updating our information. Currently, it is only a partial list of deaths in custody and not a complete database. 

Challenges in accessing information 

Due to ongoing systemic issues with a lack of access, transparency, and consistency in reporting data deaths in custody across Canada, tracking this issue is an imperfect and challenging process. Indeed, one of the purposes of this project is to shine a light on these issues.

All information is from publicly available sources, including access to information requests, government data portals, coroners’ websites, inquest documents, media articles, and department of justice reports.

In many of the access to information requests we filed, deaths were missing, and we had to do extensive research to identify missing information about people who had died in custody. We have been told by some privacy officers that government authorities do not have any records of deaths before the year 2005. Many government data portals are inconsistent, with some including information only as far back as 2007 or 2005.

Due to the limits of what is known and available, we make no claims that the data we have is complete. Our methodology is a work in progress. Due to the limits of what is possible by relying on inconsistent media and government sources, we aim to be as transparent about our process as possible. 

How do we define a death in custody?

We define custody as being held in a condition where the right to liberty is deprived by police after being arrested, by jail or penitentiary workers in a corrections facility due to criminal charges or prosecution, or in a care facility under a legal order due to mental health legislation. This can include police cars or police station holding cells, provincial jails for a sentence of less than two years, federal penitentiaries for a sentence of two or more years, prisoner transportation vehicles, court holding cells, immigration detention centres, youth detention centres, and psychiatric forensic facilities. 

Which deaths are included? 

The memorial includes the person’s name, province of death, age, and date of death. If the person is a youth we have not included their name. In instances where a name or age is unknown, we indicate “unknown.”

Currently, in the memorial, we include all deaths that occur resulting from natural causes, illness and disease, homicide, due to the use of force, conditions of confinement, as well as deaths that occur due to accident, such as a drug toxicity poisoning, or due to suicide. 

How have we been tracking deaths in custody? 

When a new death is identified, a member of our team adds information about the case into a spreadsheet based on the variables we collect. We only add information to the spreadsheet from government sources, inquest documents, or accredited media sources. We independently verify the details for each death twice. To do this, two different members of our team independently confirm that the information is an accurate summary of what is included from credible sources. To confirm missing information, we again search for publicly available credible sources.

Next steps for making data on deaths in custody available 

Over the coming months, we will be making a data set on deaths in custody available to the public. This will include information on deaths that occur in custody in police cars or police station holding cells, provincial jails for a sentence less than two years, federal penitentiaries for a sentence of two or more years, prisoner transportation vehicles, court holding cells, immigration detention centres, youth detention centres, and psychiatric forensic facilities. The data set will include deaths that occur in hospitals where someone was transferred from a custodial setting. We will then be able to start answering some basic questions about deaths in custody across Canada. 

What is Prisoners’ Justice Day?

Prisoners’ Justice Day is an annual day of resistance and memorial initiated by prisoners at Millhaven maximum-security penitentiary, in Ontario. First observed in 1975, the day started to commemorate the death of Eddie Nalon who was left to die alone in the segregation unit on August 10th, 1974. In 1976, Robert Landers also died alone in solitary confinement. In response, prisoners at Millhaven issued a communication calling for one-day hunger strikes in opposition to the use of solitary confinement, in support of prisoners’ rights, and in memory of Eddie Nalon and Robert Landers.

Lino-cut illustration of a solidarity banner across prison walls

For more on the history of Prisoners’ Justice Day, go here.

To add a missing death to the memorial, go here.

To ask for a name to be removed, or to report an error or correction to a death in the memorial, go here.

Illustrations by Taina Willard and Magin.