Nova Scotia

Family of Mi'kmaw mother who died in custody call for public inquiry

Family and friends say Sarah Rose Denny, 36, shouldn't have been behind bars in the first place.

Family and friends say Sarah Rose Denny shouldn't have been behind bars in the first place

A woman stands on grass with the ocean behind her. She has long dark brown hair and is wearing a red and black top with a denim skirt. Her arms are outstretched and she is smiling.
Sarah Rose Denny's obituary says she was active, loved fitness and once won a triathlon in Eskasoni. (Brian Knockwood)

Family and friends say Sarah Rose Denny was full of life and they want a public inquiry to find out why the 36-year-old died after being held in the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility.

They say the Mi'kmaw mother of two contracted pneumonia in what is commonly known as the Burnside jail in Dartmouth and say she should never have been there in the first place. The Department of Justice confirmed an inmate died of natural causes last Sunday after being transferred to the local hospital. 

Her obituary says Denny was active, loved fitness and once won a triathlon in Eskasoni, earning her the name the Iron Woman. 

"She was such a shining light," said Emma Halpern, executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia. "She was a very, very bright, articulate, thoughtful person."

Halpern said Denny often spoke up for other women in jail and was known for looking out for others.

Denny had addiction issues, but better community health care would help keep Indigenous people like her out of jail, said Halpern.

'She shouldn't have been in jail'

"She shouldn't have been in jail. It's not the right place and this is just a horrific example of what happens when someone is put into a prison ... and is failed by our health-care system, our mental-health-care systems and ultimately our justice system."

CBC has not confirmed why Denny was in custody.

Halpern said the Nova Scotia government needs to hold a public inquiry any time there's a death in custody.

"Many other provinces do have mandatory reviews," she said. "We do not and as a result, we don't know exactly what happened. The family doesn't know exactly what happened and if we don't know what happened, how can we learn from it?"

Cells are seen during a media tour of renovations at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Halifax on Tuesday, May 15, 2018. The work includes the configuration of a cluster of cells around a living area where guards will be stationed to observe and interact with inmates. The medium-security facility has a capacity of 322 male and 48 female offenders.
Sarah Rose Denny contracted pneumonia at the Burnside jail. Her obituary says she died Sunday, March 26, 2023. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Shirley Tuplin of Membertou grew up with Denny and said she is heartbroken over her cousin's death.

"She'd tell jokes all the time," Tuplin said. "She was very easy to talk to, very outgoing. She was a people person, you know?

"Not only was she charismatic, she was naturally beautiful and so strong. She overcame so many obstacles. This should not have been her end."

2nd Indigenous death behind bars in N.S.

Tuplin has spent some time in jail in Western Canada and is now proudly sober five years and an Indigenous peer support worker with the Elizabeth Fry Society in Nova Scotia.

It is difficult to access proper health care inside correctional facilities where inmates are the responsibility of the government and cannot just go to a walk-in clinic, she said.

"The correctional facilities, they need to be held accountable for these things, instead of just trying to sweep it under the rug," Tuplin said.

An exterior sign for the Cape Breton Correction Facility.
Sarah Rose Denny is the second Indigenous person to die in a Nova Scotia jail since the beginning of 2023. A man died at the Cape Breton Correctional Facility in January. (CBC)

"There's so many of my people in there that should not be in there. We need answers."

Denny is the second Indigenous person to die in a Nova Scotia jail since the beginning of the year.

A man died at the Cape Breton Correctional Facility in January.

'Tragic and alarming

Sheila Wildeman, a Dalhousie University law professor and co-chair of the East Coast Prison Justice Society, said Indigenous people are "grossly" over-represented in Canadian correctional facilities.

Two deaths in Nova Scotia facilities this year already are too many, she said.

"It's tragic and alarming," Wildeman said. "It reinforces calls that East Coast Prison Justice has made in the past for mandatory public fatalities inquiries when there are deaths in custody."

More than 70 per cent of persons in Nova Scotia jails are in pre-trial detention, meaning they have been charged but not convicted, she said.

"In 2021-22, six per cent of the Nova Scotian population was Indigenous, yet 15 per cent of those in pre-trial detention were Indigenous.

"Indigenous women are particularly over-represented. They constituted 23 per cent of women in pre-trial detention in Nova Scotia in 2019-20."

The society often hears from prisoners that their health needs are not being met in jail, Wildeman said.

Department of Justice responds

While the province does involve the medical examiner when there's a death in custody, "what happens after that is a black box," Wildeman said.

In an email on Friday, the Department of Justice said when an inmate becomes ill, they are transferred to a unit and monitored by Nova Scotia Health staff, and if they die, police are called and an internal review is done.

The province said there are currently 42 women in provincial custody and eight have identified as Indigenous.


  • This story has been changed to clarify the statistics on the proportion of Indigenous people in Nova Scotia jails. An earlier version was incorrect.
    Apr 01, 2023 9:33 AM AT


Tom Ayers


Tom Ayers has been a reporter and editor for 37 years. He has spent the last 19 covering Cape Breton and Nova Scotia stories. You can reach him at