Advocates call for dedicated committee to review deaths in custody

Advocates for prisoners' rights and transparency are calling on the Nova Scotia government to make changes to proposed amendments to the Fatality Investigations Act.

Justice Minister Mark Furey introduced the amendments last week, which would establish death review committees for domestic violence-related deaths and any time a young person dies in the care of the province. It would also help gather information about trends in the hopes of preventing future deaths.

But during a meeting of the law amendments committee on Tuesday at Province House, concern was voiced that the changes do not include a committee to review deaths of people in custody, about the level of transparency for the work of the two proposed committees and that the committee recommendations would not be binding.

In an interview, Hanna Garson, a criminal defence lawyer and chair of the East Coast Prison Justice Society, said she worries the government is sidestepping the issue of people in custody because there are calls for a public inquiry into the death of Gregory Hiles.

Hiles was found unresponsive in his cell at the East Coast Forensics Hospital in August and later died in the Dartmouth General Hospital. His family has pushed for answers, but so far has received little information as the Nova Scotia Health Authority reviews the matter.

The goal is truth finding

Garson said another explanation for not including a third committee in the amendments could be that people in custody simply aren't viewed as sympathetically as women and children.

"That's why our rights are enshrined," she said. "As individuals, we are biased by who we feel sympathy for."

Furey has noted the amendments give whoever is justice minister the right to call a death review committee for someone who dies in custody, but Garson said the structure of that committee needs to be included in the act and it needs to be independent. The committee's work also needs to be public, she said.

"The goal of a committee is truth finding to enable insightful recommendations being made," she said.

"In order for anyone to be truly held accountable, we need to understand what's going on."

12 deaths since 2011

Harry Critchley, the East Coast Prison Justice Society's vice-chair, said it should be mandatory that all deaths in custody are reviewed, as they are in Ontario, Saskatchewan, Alberta, Manitoba and British Columbia.

Critchley said there have been 12 deaths in jails and prisons in Nova Scotia since the Hyde Inquiry in 2011, yet none have resulted in a similar investigation.

"I think it's a really major concern and it's something all Nova Scotians should be concerned about," he said.

Jails and forensic hospitals are places the public pays for, hold a disproportionate number of marginalized people and any time there's a chance someone has faced abuse or neglect under the care of the government the public has a right to know about it, said Critchley.

"And our government has failed us over and over again in doing that," he said.

He'd like to see passage of the amendments delayed until subject matter experts and groups have a chance to be consulted.

Following the data

On Wednesday at Province House, Furey said the focus of the amendments is based on data.

"We had 25 domestic homicides in the last 10 years," he told reporters. "Those are significant numbers that warrant another intervention and review."

The amendments are a good first step, he said, and the provision allowing him to strike additional committees means the issue of deaths in custody won't be left behind.

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"I don't want to dismiss any unfortunate death in the province, but we can't have a committee for every set of circumstances," he said.

Asked if he's seen circumstances with recent deaths in custody that would warrant the striking of a committee, Furey said what he's seen is "a need to allow existing committees in those environments — in corrections and health services — to allow their processes to run their course."

Furey said he'd look at the Hiles matter once the health authority's review is complete.

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