N.S. non-profit demands inquiry into death of Mi’kmaw woman while in custody

Wellness Within is calling for a public inquiry into the death of Sarah Rose Denny, a 36-year-old Mi'kmaw woman, who died in provincial custody in March 2023.
Wellness Within is calling for a public inquiry into the death of Sarah Rose Denny, a 36-year-old Mi'kmaw woman, who died in provincial custody in March 2023.

A non-profit organization is calling for a public inquiry into the death of a 36-year-old Mi’kmaw woman who recently died from pneumonia while held at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Dartmouth, N.S.

Wellness Within, a group which serves Nova Scotian women, transgender, and nonbinary people who have committed crimes, published a release on Thursday morning demanding further information surrounding the death of Sarah Rose Denny.

Denny died on March 26 after being transferred to the hospital from the jail where she was being held.

According to her obituary, Denny “had a big heart and loved people” and “always greeted people with a smile.” She loved fitness and kickboxing and once won a triathlon in Eskasoni. She is survived by her two sons.

Martha Paynter, director of research for the volunteer-based organization, said there are currently no requirements in Nova Scotia that deaths in custody are met with a public inquest. She said that needs to change.

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“There really should be (inquiries) for us to learn anything and make appropriate changes to protect people’s health and lives,” she said. “There has to be public accountability.”

A release from Wellness Within said Denny’s passing follows “many other deaths in provincial custody” and said Denny was the second Mi’kmaw person to die in custody in Nova Scotia this year.

The organization continues to encourage the provincial government to conduct a fatality review for all deaths in custody and public institutions. Its first called for these measures back in 2019.

“We again urge the Houston government to create an independent body to provide ongoing monitoring of conditions of confinement in Nova Scotia jails,” the release said.

It mentioned this proposed watchdog organization would play a role similar to the office of the correctional investigator for federal institutions.

“This transparency is essential to ensure that the human rights of some of the most vulnerable members of our society are being upheld.” the organization said.

Paynter said this approach would produce independent investigations into the conditions of confinement in custodial facilities, including the one located in Burnside. She said this is in addition to the original request for the government to review all previous deaths in these settings.

“These are public settings, these provincial jails,” she said while mentioning there has been no progress made with the provincial government since these requests were initially sent out.

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Paynter, who is also an assistant professor in the Faculty of Nursing at the University of New Brunswick, said she is still “very hopeful” for progress and change.

“The stigma and invisibility that people who experience incarceration are continually subject to means that when they die, their deaths do not get the same attention and concern,” she said.

“When people are in prison, they are under the province’s custody, under the province’s care, and the province has to be accountable when that care fails.”

Department of Justice responds

In a statement to Global News on Thursday, the province’s Department of Justice said they take “any death in custody very seriously.”

“Our thoughts continue to be with the family and friends of Ms. Denny,” said Deborah Bayer, communications adviser for the DOJ.

The department said an internal investigation into Denny’s death has since been completed.

“We have concluded our own internal review and will also be considering information from the Office of the Medical Examiner’s investigation,” Bayer said.

But Paynter says an internal review isn’t enough. She said Denny’s family wants an Indigenous-led public inquiry.

“Certainly, we would want findings to be public,” she said, “so an internal investigation … is inadequate. There needs to be public reckoning with what happens.

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“If we had, as a public system, made different decisions, this would’ve been prevented.”

The Department of Justice spokesperson said a decision regarding the next steps will be made soon.

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