The Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia is calling for a public inquiry after a Mi’kmaw woman died of pneumonia in provincial custody this week.
Sarah Rose Denny, 36, died in hospital on Sunday, March 26. She had been in custody in the East Unit of the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility, the provincial jail in Burnside.
Denny was a mother of two from the Eskasoni First Nation, and she was part of the Eskasoni Women’s Drum Group and Denny Family Dancers.
Shirley Tuplin, from Membertou First Nation, is Denny’s lifelong friend, and a relative.
“She was so strong. I’m going to remember her as a warrior,” Tuplin told the Halifax Examiner in an interview Friday.
“She had a beautiful sense of humour. She loved going to the gym, boxing. She’s just hilarious. Naturally, just gorgeous.”
Tuplin works as an Indigenous peer support person. She and Denny got sober around the same time a few years ago, and she said Denny was “on the Red Road.”
“She’s participating in the community and songwriting and poetry, keeping a journal,” Tuplin said.
“A person like that, that’s changed her life around … She was never a malicious, mean person to begin with. She was never a threat to society, ever. Unfortunately, the disease of addiction, it just takes you down a road, where it can lead to incarceration or death.”
Double pneumonia spread to Denny’s heart
Denny ended up in Burnside because she missed a meeting with a probation officer, Tuplin said.
“It was supposed to be a simple little thing, like, ‘Go turn yourself in and get right back out,'” Tuplin said.
“And then they end up doing what they always do with my people, and just delaying things and making it hard. So she must have caught pneumonia while being in there.”
It’s unclear how long Denny was in custody. Tuplin estimated it was a few weeks.
Tuplin said an autopsy showed Denny had double pneumonia, meaning both her lungs were infected. The infection had spread to her heart, Tuplin said.
Staff at the Burnside jail waited until Denny was vomiting blood to take her to the hospital, Tuplin said, and that’s where she died on Sunday.
“This sounds to me like they don’t want to take responsibility of their negligence. They think, ‘OK, we’ll just ship her to the hospital now that it’s too late, and let them be responsible for it,'” Tuplin said.
“We can’t just walk into a walk-in clinic when we’re in correctional. It’s their responsibility to make sure that they give the proper care for the people that are in your care.”
Provincial Department of Justice spokesperson Deborah Bayer confirmed the death in an emailed statement on Friday.
“On March 26, a person in custody at the Central Nova Scotia Women’s Facility was transferred to Dartmouth General Hospital and subsequently passed away of natural causes,” Bayer wrote.
“This is very sad news. Our thoughts are with the family and friends of the deceased and we extend our sympathies.”
Tragedy ‘of epic proportions’
Emma Halpern is the executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia. Halpern had known Denny for years after first meeting her while visiting with prisoners in Burnside.
“She stood out as someone who was very capable and smart and really had so much going for her in life,” Halpern said.
Halpern said Denny was was looking at a conditional release, which would’ve allowed her to serve out her sentence at one of E-Fry’s transition houses.
“Sarah should not have been there in the first place,” Halpern said.
“She should have been receiving support in the community and she should have been getting the treatment she needs there, and she should have been able to be home with her family, and in her community. And so this is just a tragedy, for me, of epic proportions.”
Halpern doesn’t know the circumstances of Denny’s illness, but said a lack of access to reasonable medical care is the No. 1 complaint E-Fry receives from people in custody.
“Would this have happened to her had she been in the community? Obviously, I can’t say definitively, but it definitely raises some questions as to whether something like this would ever happen to somebody in the community who could walk themselves to a medical clinic or a hospital emergency room or access their family doctor, as needed,” Halpern said.
“It doesn’t surprise me that somebody would get medical care in there that is below the standard of care in Canada. That would be in keeping with my experience over the last decade of provincial prisoners.”
Tuplin said this isn’t even the first time it happened to Denny. About a decade ago, she had a blood infection while incarcerated in Burnside, Tuplin said.
“We were actually thinking like that she wasn’t going to make it, it was that bad,” Tuplin said.
“And she pulled through. She got out, and then for this to happen after everything she went through and persevered, and just survived and then for the negligence of the correctional facility and stuff like that, to just do that to her, it kills me. It really hurts me a lot because it could have been prevented. And she shouldn’t have died like that, like her last memories shouldn’t have been of being in jail.
“She shouldn’t even have been there. She shouldn’t have been there.”
‘We’re not learning from this’
Halpern is concerned about how little information the family is getting.
“They’ve had little evidence that they’re going to receive any information in the future,” Halpern said. “And their concern is like, how do we know that this won’t just keep happening?”
This isn’t the first time a woman has died in custody from pneumonia. In 2019, Samantha Wallace-Parker, 28, died in custody at the Nova Institution for Women in Truro.
And just this year in Nova Scotia, Denny is the second Mi’kmaw person to die in provincial custody. In January, 27-year-old Peter Paul died in the Cape Breton Correctional Facility.
“We’re not learning from this,” Halpern said.
“There needs to be a look into what happened so that we can improve our systems, so that we can ensure that this doesn’t happen again.”
Halpern said Nova Scotia’s Fatal Injuries Act is out of line with that of other provinces, where there’s an automatic inquiry when a death like this happens. There’s a mandatory review when people die in hospital, she said, but not for prisoners in Nova Scotia.
A call for answers
That’s why Halpern and Tuplin, who works as a peer support worker with E-Fry, are calling for a public inquiry into Denny’s death, and others in custody.
“For me, it just shines a very bright light on our failure as it pertains to Indigenous people, Indigenous women in particular, and the reality that Indigenous women continue to be the fastest growing prisoner population and continue to not receive the adequate supports and services in our communities where they should should be getting those services,” Halpern said.
“These are not things that we can sweep under the rug anymore. We cannot rely on the correctional systems to solve our social problems. They are failing people over and over and over again. And this is the most egregious example of that, is the loss of a mother and a beautiful person in our community, who had so much, was bringing so much, and so much promise and dies in a correctional facility. There’s nothing worse.”
Tuplin said there are never answers after Indigenous people die in custody, just more injustice.
“Nothing seems to change, like it’s always been like this,” Tuplin said.
“It’s a present thing. It’s a present issue that’s still happening now. In the society and these correctional facilities, they really need to open up their eyes and realize what they’re doing to my people, the Mi’kmaq, and all the other tribes across Turtle Island, you know? It’s not right.”
Bayer, the Department of Justice spokesperson, said any death in custody is reported to the local police and the Medical Examiner’s office.
“The Department of Justice does an internal review. Nova Scotia Health would be responsible for a review of the medical care. It is important to note that when an inmate becomes ill, they are transferred to a Health Care Unit where they are monitored by healthcare staff,” Bayer wrote.
“To protect patient privacy, no further information will be released.”