New Brunswick·CBC Investigates

Secret New Brunswick jail deaths prompt calls for public review

A CBC News investigation has discovered that 13 inmates have died in New Brunswick jails since 2004 but the provincial government is just now starting to release basic information about these deaths.

A CBC News investigation has identified more than half of the 13 inmates who died, but much remains unknown

Jeffrey Hood, Carolyn Warnock and Jason Hopkins are three of the 13 people who have died in New Brunswick jails in the last 12 years. (Photos submitted)

The New Brunswick government will start telling the public when a person dies inside a provincial jail, but officials say the public isn't allowed to know how they died.

A CBC News investigation has found that 13 people have died in custody of provincial jails since 2004.

Only four cases have been subject to a public coroner's inquest, while details about the rest remain veiled in secrecy.

That has prompted New Brunswick's ombudsman, who investigates complaints about the provincial justice system, to call for mandatory, public reviews of inmate deaths.

Charles Murray said the privacy concerns used to protect details about inmate deaths is protecting the justice system more than deceased inmates.

"What's happening now is those deaths are taking place in silence," Murray said.

"They're becoming forgotten deaths."

Changing policy

Public Safety Minister Denis Landry said his department will begin informing the public when an inmate dies in custody of a provincial jail. (CBC)
Public Safety Minister Denis Landry declined to be interviewed by CBC News for this story.

Landry said in an emailed statement, however, that his department will start telling the public when an inmate dies in custody of a provincial jail.

In the past, the provincial correctional service had no obligation to tell the public about inmate deaths. The department quietly changed its policy at the end of June.

Do you want to share details about an inmate's death? Email your tips to NBInvestigates@CBC.ca

 "Our revised policy on the public disclosure of deaths in custody has been in development for quite some time," Landry said in the statement.

"It was important that we balance transparency with the requirement to protect private, personal information, and therefore required extensive internal and legal review." 

Within 12 hours of an inmate's death, the department will release the person's name, age and the name of the jail where he or she was in custody.

Critics say key detail missing

New figures show there have been at least 919 incidents of serious self harm inside New Brunswick's jails in the last 14 years. Four inmates took their own lives. (CBC)
But that news release won't say how the person died.

Landry said that detail is classified as personal health information and that privacy legislation prevents his department from revealing it.

Critics argue that's a crucial detail needed to determine whether the death could have been prevented.

"Too often I feel privacy is used as a way of us giving ourselves excuses for not getting into and openly discussing these matters," Murray said.

"The fact is that the people involved in this are unfortunately not with us anymore. We don't need to go to great lengths to protect their privacy."

Despite revising its policy, the provincial government won't provide any details about the 13 deaths, saying it would be "inappropriate" to apply the policy retroactively.

To fill in the blanks, CBC News has reviewed more than a decade's worth of coroner's inquest reports, news clippings and obituaries, identifying more than half of the 13 people who have died.

Some of their family members believe their loved one's death could have been prevented.

Many family members who spoke to CBC News say they still have unanswered questions about the death.

'We can do better'

Ombudsman on 'forgotten deaths'

5 years ago
0:37
Ombudsman Charles Murray said the privacy concerns used to protect details about inmate deaths is protecting the justice system more than deceased inmates. 0:37
When an inmate dies in custody — behind bars, in the community or in hospital — police, the coroner and the Department of Public Safety all launch separate investigations.

The department will hand over cases in need of more review to a critical incident review team that will investigate further. That team writes a report about what happened and how a similar death could be prevented in the future.

But most of the details of those investigations are secret.

The public only learns the details of an inmate's death if the coroner calls an inquest, something that is mandatory in Ontario, but not in New Brunswick.

Murray said he believes automatic, public reviews could protect the privacy of families while looking at how the system could have done better.

"Let's not accept that these deaths are a natural part of what happens in incarceration," Murray said.

"They don't have to be. We can do better."

Officials with the Department of Public Safety wouldn't comment on the possibility of adopting mandatory inquests.

More accountability needed

Howard Sapers, the federal correctional investigator, believes the public needs to know what's happening inside jails and prisons. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)
Even in cases where an inquest is called, families are often left waiting months or years to find out what happened, according to Howard Sapers, the federal correctional investigator.

Sapers, the watchdog for federal prisons, said he believes the public needs to be able to know what's happening inside jails and prisons.

He doesn't see the argument for keeping details about New Brunswick's 13 deaths secret, arguing that public interest should outweigh potential privacy concerns.

"These are public institutions and there is a duty of care, and that comes with an accountability," Sapers said.

"And it's very hard to hold a public institution accountable if people are kept in the dark about what's going on."

Do you have any story ideas for the CBC New Brunswick investigative unit? Send them here

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