Three years ago, 26-year-old Jordan Sherd was discharged from prison and returned to his mother, Angela Vos, in a body bag. Sherd was one of at least 1,495 people who have died in custody since the year 2000 — an average of 65 people per year — according to new data released today by the Tracking (In)Justice project.

Despite these staggering numbers, there is little institutional transparency around deaths in custody, making it hard to see the full picture.

“The grief is traumatic [and] a continuous reminder the system has failed our loved one,” Vos told Ricochet, and “there’s very little support” for the affected families.

Support can come in many forms, but the first step for many victims and advocates would be complete transparency and public availability with regard to the hard data — how many individuals die each year while in the custody of those who are meant to protect society and uphold the law.

Lindsay Jennings, a former incarcerated person from Ontario who helped shape the database, told Ricochet that “the government does a good job at redacting and keeping records out of the sight of the general public.”

Alexander McClelland, the project’s lead investigator at Carleton University’s Institute of Criminology and Criminal Justice, told Ricochet that gaining access to the information has been extremely challenging.

As it stands, “there is no consistent tracking of deaths in custody across the country despite the high number of deaths,” he said. McClelland’s team relied on various sources to build their database, including government sources, inquest documents, and media reports.

Additional statistics
⚫ Tracking (In)Justice has 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 have been verified. In 2022, there were 68 deaths verified; in 2021, there are 125 deaths verified; in 2020, 108 deaths verified, and in 2019, 103 deaths verified. ⚫ The average age of death across all years is 44.5 years old.

Government records of deaths in custody do not go back before 2005, leaving the database incomplete. What does this say about the Canadian justice system? For McClelland, the system is “deeply broken and designed to obfuscate responsibility, so institutions and the people that work within them can resist accountability.”

He told Ricochet that his team “encountered many instances of privacy officers denying access to information [that] is public and should be available.”

Lindsay Jennings, a former incarcerated person from Ontario who helped shape the database, agrees, and told Ricochet that “the government does a good job at redacting and keeping records out of the sight of the general public.”

The goal of the database, along with tracking the number of deaths, is precisely to “highlight issues of lack of transparency and accountability in policing and the criminal legal system across the country,” McClelland told Ricochet.

The memorial also “indicates that the average age of death for incarcerated people is 44.5 years old. And in comparison, the average age of death for non-incarcerated people in Canada is around 81 years old. To me this massive disparity really indicates the violence of these institutions.”

Defining a death in custody
The analysis defines 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 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.

But for those involved the project is more than just numbers, and the lives lost in custody more than mere statistics. “These are fathers, brothers, sisters, mothers, uncles. These are human beings that lost their lives, Canadians that deserved a better end,” Yusuf Faqiri told Ricochet. His brother Soleiman died in custody in 2016 at the age of 30. This is why Tracking (In)Justice refers to the dataset as a memorial. It is meant to honour the lives lost.

Where do we go from here? Jennings said that “people need to realize that prisons are not rehabilitating people.” She quoted a saying considered common knowledge among those working in jails: “If you don’t come into prison with a mental health issue, you will leave with one.” Corrections are “not a place that allows you to heal,” she added, arguing the institution “takes years off of people’s lives.”

In Faqiri’s opinion, for healing to happen, “we need to transform the correctional system [and] create accountability and transparency.”

Advocates and families want to start by asking why 65 people in Canada die each year while in custody, and what can be done to prevent it.

Eds. Ricochet is partnering with the Tracking (In)justice project on an unrelated research project studying police misconduct.