Deaths while in custody

At the end of October, news broke that five individuals have died since March 2016 while they were being held in custody at the Winnipeg Remand Centre. (

This is extremely alarming. As John Hutton, executive director of the John Howard Society of Manitoba, states, “It’s an indication…that there could be some systemic problems — might be related to supervision, to staffing levels, to whether the medical units are being properly supported.” (

Mr. Hutton notes that during his eight years in his present position, he has “never been aware of five deaths in a short period of time, all from the same centre.” (


“there’s a systematic lack of concern for the lives of these individuals.”


The Winnipeg Remand Centre is intended to hold individuals awaiting bail hearings, trials or sentencing hearings, as the case may be. The institution houses roughly 300 individuals at any given time. (

The extremely troubling news from the Remand Centre has prompted calls for a public inquiry. ( This seems fully appropriate—and absolutely necessary—in the circumstances.

Certainly, if there had been five deaths stemming from a particular university dormitory over the past eight months, it is a virtual guarantee that the government would have stepped in to act by now.

However, the individuals who died in the custody of the state were, for the most part, not middle or upper class. They were labeled as offenders—different from the rest of society. As Winnipeg lawyer Corey Shefman points out, the fact that there has been apparent reluctance to launch a public inquiry into these deaths could possibly be perceived as a sign that “there’s a systematic lack of concern for the lives of these individuals.” (

When someone is in the custody of the state, that individual is entirely reliant on the government for the provision of the necessities of life.



It’s crucial to put these deaths into context.

When someone is in the custody of the state, that individual is entirely reliant on the government for the provision of the necessities of life.

If an individual is ill and/or in need of essential medication while in custody, governmental authorities must provide proper, timely, reasonable, and competent treatment. If an individual is hungry or thirsty, the state must provide food or water.

While in custody, an individual obviously has no independent ability to go to a doctor’s office, a hospital, pharmacy, dentist, restaurant, grocery store, etc. One of the costs the state must bear in exchange for depriving these individuals of their liberties is that access to these services must be provided for individuals while they are behind bars.

The fact that the deaths themselves happened in a hospital setting as opposed to physically at the Remand Centre should be immaterial; the individuals were in custody, regardless of their precise location at the moment of passing away. As Mr. Shefman points out, “It’s not like the [inmates] could’ve gotten up out of the hospital bed and walked out, they were still in custody even when they were in the hospital.” (


We do not have the death penalty in Canada. No one deserves to die unexpectedly behind bars, especially if the death is in any way preventable (which has yet to be made public in these cases).

We should all be extremely concerned with what has been happening at the Remand Centre to our fellow Canadians. We must not discount the importance of any individual life because of any criminal history or allegations. A life is a life; a human being is a human being.

In fact, there is a strong case to be made that the government is under a greater obligation to safeguard the well being of members of such a vulnerable group of people.


Although much more information is required in order to make a final determination, five deaths within eight months certainly seems like more than coincidence and may well be a strong indication that something is amiss at the Winnipeg Remand Centre. The public is entitled to answers.


About Katrina Trask

Katrina Trask is a graduate student at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law. Prior to beginning her graduate studies, she was a legal research lawyer at the Newfoundland and Labrador Court of Appeal. Katrina’s undergraduate and law degrees are both from the University of Manitoba.