People in custody are more likely to die prematurely, especially of violent causes, than similar people not in custody. Some of these deaths may be preventable. In this study we examined causes of death (violent and natural) among people in custody in Ontario. We also compared the causes of deaths in 3 custodial systems (federal penitentiaries, provincial prisons and police cells).
We examined all available files of coroners' inquests into the deaths of people in custody in federal penitentiaries, provincial prisons and police cells in Ontario from 1990 to 1999. Data collected included age, cause of death, place of death, history of psychiatric illness and history of substance abuse. Causes of death were categorized as violent (accidental poisoning, suicide or homicide) or natural (cancer, cardiovascular disease or "other"). Crude death rates were estimated for male inmate populations in federal and provincial institutions. There were inadequate numbers for women and inadequate denominator estimates for police cells.
A total of 308 inmates died in custody during the study period; data were available for 291 (283 men, 8 women). Of the 283 deaths involving men, over half (168 [59%]) were from violent causes: suicide by strangulation (n = 90), poisoning or toxic effect (n = 48) and homicide (n = 16). Natural causes accounted for 115 (41%) of the deaths among the men, cardiovascular disease being the most common (n = 62 cases) and cancer the second most common (n = 18). Most (137 [48%]) of the deaths among the men occurred in federal institutions; 88 (31%) and 58 (21%) respectively occurred in provincial institutions and police cells. The crude rate of death among male inmates was 420.1 per 100,000 in federal institutions and 211.5 per 100 000 in provincial institutions. Compared with the Canadian male population, male inmates in both federal and provincial institutions had much higher rates of death by poisoning and suicide; the same was true for the rate of death by homicide among male inmates in federal institutions. The rates of death from cardiovascular disease among male inmates in federal and provincial institutions -- 102.7 and 51.7 per 100,000 respectively -- were also higher than the national average.
Violent causes of death, especially suicide by strangulation and poisoning, predominate among people in custody. Compared with the Canadian male population, male inmates have a higher overall rate of death and a much higher rate of death from violent causes.
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