Open Access Open Badges Research article

Years of life lost to incarceration: inequities between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians

Akwasi Owusu-Bempah1, Steve Kanters2, Eric Druyts3, Kabirraaj Toor2, Katherine A Muldoon2, John W Farquhar4 and Edward J Mills34*

Author Affiliations

1 Centre of Criminology and Sociolegal Studies, University of Toronto, 14 Queen’s Park Crescent West, Toronto M5S 3 K9 Ontario, Canada

2 School of Population and Public Health, The University of British Columbia, 2206 East Mall, Vancouver, British Columbia V6T 1Z3, Canada

3 Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Ottawa, 25 University Private, Ottawa, Ontario K1N 6 N5, Canada

4 Stanford Prevention Research Center, Stanford University, 291 Campus Drive, Stanford, California 94305-5101, USA

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BMC Public Health 2014, 14:585  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-14-585

Published: 11 June 2014



Aboriginal representation in Canadian correctional institutions has increased rapidly over the past decade. We calculated “years of life lost to incarceration” for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians.


Incarceration data from provincial databases were used conjointly with demographic data to estimate rates of incarceration and years of life lost to provincial incarceration in (BC) and federal incarceration, by Aboriginal status. We used the Sullivan method to estimate the years of life lost to incarceration.


Aboriginal males can expect to spend approximately 3.6 months in federal prison and within BC spend an average of 3.2 months in custody in the provincial penal system. Aboriginal Canadians on average spend more time in custody than their non-Aboriginal counterparts. The ratio of the Aboriginal incarceration rate to the non-Aboriginal incarceration rate ranged from a low of 4.28 in Newfoundland and Labrador to a high of 25.93 in Saskatchewan. Rates of incarceration at the provincial level were highest among Aboriginals in Manitoba with an estimated rate of 1377.6 individuals in prison per 100,000 population (95% confidence interval [CI]: 1311.8 – 1443.4).


The results indicate substantial differences in life years lost to incarceration for Aboriginal versus non-Aboriginal Canadians. In light of on-going prison expansion in Canada, future research and policy attention should be paid to the public health consequences of incarceration, particularly among Aboriginal Canadians.

Prison; Incarceration; Aboriginal; Public health