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Eric Thayer for Reuters, from Thomas Fuller and Lance Booth, “California Hasn’t Seen Fires Like This: Pictures of a State in Flames.” The New York Times. November 10, 2018.    

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“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 January 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 risk-averse 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.”

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Anna Mehler Paperny, “Canada’s jailhouse secret: Legally innocent prisoners are dying,” Reuters. August 3, 2017.

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