Ernest LeBlanc sits by the wooden box that contains his son's cremated remains, clenching his hands as he describes his anger at the wall of silence that has greeted most of his questions about his son's death in a Cape Breton jail hours after being admitted.

"I want to know how he died. I know he could have been saved. He didn't deserve to die like this," said the 64-year-old resident of Sydney Mines, N.S.

The father says Jason Marcel LeBlanc, 42, was seen on internal jail video gasping on the early hours of Jan. 31, after police brought him to the Cape Breton Correctional Facility when he missed his curfew at a halfway house.

He says prison officials told him his son "didn't look his best" upon arrival, and that he's learned from a medical examiner that Jason had pills in his cell.

LeBlanc says the unanswered questions haunt him.

Why didn't a nurse send his son to hospital if he looked unwell?

How often was Jason checked in his cell? If there were pills, how did he obtain and keep them?

Provincial Jail Deaths 201603018

An urn containing Jason LeBlanc's ashes sits on a table in the family home in Sydney Mines, N.S. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Death inquests common outside N.S.

He wants a public inquiry, but jail cell deaths in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland don't require a mandatory public inquest when caused by non-natural events like an overdose or suicide. 

In Ontario, Prince Edward Island, Quebec and the Prairie provinces, coroners' inquest or fatality inquiries are ordered in non-natural and preventable deaths.

There are provisos such as a clause in Alberta that requires there to be a "meaningful connection" between the death and the quality of in-custody supervision.

In Nova Scotia, the chief medical examiner can recommend a public inquiry to the Justice Department, but there hasn't been an inquiry since 2010 when a judge looked at how Howard Hyde died in jail after being repeatedly tasered. Since that inquiry, there have been six deaths in the province's jails.

In neighbouring New Brunswick, the province says it only confirms deaths if asked. It required a newspaper's freedom of information request last fall to reveal that 11 people have died in custody in the province since Jan. 1, 2004.

After The Canadian Press asked for an update, Public Safety Department spokesman Paul Bradley said Wednesday there's been a 12th death on Feb. 29 involving a man due to "a condition that pre-existed prior to his incarceration."

Bradley says the disclosure policy is being reviewed.

Clayton Cromwell

Clayton Cromwell, 23, was waiting in prison for a court hearing when he suddenly overdosed on methadone. (The Canadian Press)

Mother suing over son's death

Devin Maxwell, a lawyer who represents a mother suing the Nova Scotia government over the April 7, 2014 cell death of her son, says the parents of deceased inmates face a demoralizing battle for information.

Maxwell is in the second year of a legal action centring on how 23-year-old Clayton Cromwell managed to receive a lethal dose of non-prescribed medical methadone while in the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Halifax.

Maxwell's freedom of information request asking for an internal report completed in July of that year was declined. 

The lawyer said that forced him to start a legal action in an attempt to learn more about how Cromwell died, revealing an emergency buzzer in the cell of the Central Nova Correctional Centre wasn't working and there had been another overdose in the same living area just a day earlier.

"Until you launch the lawsuit, according to the government you don't have rights to any of the information. You might have rights to the autopsy report...but you'll have a difficult time getting a copy of the investigation at the prison itself," said Maxwell.

Provincial Jail Deaths 201603018

Cape Breton Correctional Facility guards seized contraband 585 times between 2007 and last year, freedom of information documents show. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Unknown how many die in jail

The province says it can't comment because of the legal action.

Chrissy Matheson, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, said, "We have one of the most open and transparent approaches in the country when reporting what happens in our correctional facilities."

However, some public health doctors argue for automatic coroner's inquests in each prison death, with public findings that could improve the system.

Ontario epidemiologist Dr. Fiona Kouyoumdjian, who is studying the causes of death and injury in her province's jails, says it's difficult to know how many people are dying in jails across the country.

She cites the latest studies showing 327 deaths in provincial facilities from 2001 to 2010, or about 33 people a year dying in provincial and territorial jails.

Kouyoumdjian says overdose deaths, such as Cromwell's, are part of a wider national concern over the health care of provincial prisoners.

In the Cape Breton jail where LeBlanc died, freedom of information documents indicate that between 2007 and last year, there were 585 incidents where guards seized contraband from prisoners, 20 cases of smuggling, and 18 cases of prisoners being intoxicated on arrival.

Provincial Jail Deaths 201603018

Ernest LeBlanc says he wants to know why didn't a nurse send his son to hospital if he looked unwell. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

'There needs to be accountability'

Kouyoumdjian argues for reforms such as better treatment programs, educating prisoners and guards on the dangers of opiates, permitting prisoners to admit they have drugs without imposing penalties on them, and allowing the on-site use of drugs like naloxone to counter opiate overdoses.

But she says discussion of potential reforms requires an open process.

"So many of these deaths are preventable," she said. "There needs to be accountability on what's happening in custody."

LeBlanc says his son is a good example — describing Jason as a non-violent, opiate addict who needed access to substance abuse programs, not more time in a jail.

"He's here with me, all because he never had the right treatment," he said, as his hands formed into fists. "I would like to have an independent inquiry."