The Chronicle Herald (Provincial)
Advocates call for action on jails
A group dedicated to fair treatment for prisoners in Nova Scotia jails is calling on government to fix some wrongs it sees in the incarceration system.
The East Coast Prison Justice Society released its report on conditions in jails on Monday, including a breakdown of what it sees as systemic failures and making 43 recommendations related to the need for accountability and transparency.
The ECPJS, founded in 2017, created a visiting committee to work with prisoners and bring concerns to administrators and the public, the report said. The committee began surveying conditions through in-person visits in February 2020, but COVID-19 derailed the process as facilities were closed. The committee had to shift to phone calls with prisoners, although those inside were less interested in phone conversations than in-person visits.
“However, from prisoners' calls and reports of other contacts from service providers, families, and others, themes emerged indicating certain systemic problems in NS Correctional Facilities,” the report said. “These included a reduction in the liberties of prisoners and in the transparency of the jails, both attributed at least in part to system responses to COVID-19.”
Concerns raised included deprivations of liberty and related concerns, cleanliness and hygiene, communication such as access to calls with lawyers and families as well as visits, other concerns such as strip searching, racism, programming and health care.
“The most common complaints related to lockdowns, as well as difficulty navigating and accessing healthcare,” the report said.
The four correctional facilities in the province are the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Burnside (Dartmouth), the Northeast Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in New Glasgow, the Southwest Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in| Yarmouth and the Cape Breton Correctional Facility in Sydney.
“A lockdown refers to a period of time when people who are housed in a living unit, who would typically have access to the day room and programming, instead remain locked in their cells,” the report said.
“Both during the first inperson visit to CNSCF, and persistently throughout the year, lockdowns caused the greatest concern to all individuals in custody with whom the VC spoke.”
Inmates reported up to 80 to 90 per cent of their time was restricted to a cell and said they were not allowed any time outside a cell, while others reported up to two hours a day outside. There was broad agreement that time outside of the cell was the most limited on weekends, reported as often less than two hours a day.
The prisoners attributed this to short staffing, as well as staff refusals to work.
“Callers reported that rising tensions in the facility because of lockdowns increased both in terms of their frequency and their perceived urgency," the report said, adding concerns included the risk of fights more often and referring to the range as “a powder keg.”
Administrators acknowledged staffing issues and changed shift patterns in response, the report said. It also said there has been an attempt to reduce lockdowns as well as monitoring the rotations to ensure time out of cells is spread equally.
Key recommendations from the committee include applying minimum standards of treatment, including guaranteed time out of cells each day, prohibition on solitary confinement for people with serious mental health problems, sufficient staffing and scheduling, and legislative standards and/or public policies on lockdown recordkeeping and reasoning be put in place.
In response to reports of time outdoors being limited, the committee is recommending that staff ensure all inmates are offered the 30 minutes of outdoor tine mandated in provincial law, with adequate weather-appropriate clothing provided, and that written reasons for denying outdoor time be given.
CLEANLINESS AND HYGIENE
Multiple callers described the close confinement unit of the Burnside facility as “filthy,” the report said, claiming there was “food and fecal matter, as well as other potentially biohazardous materials, on the walls of the cells in this unit.”
Cleanliness was also cited as concerns in other areas, the report said, with linens unchanged, lights broken and inadequate cleaning supplies provided.
The committee recommends that there be a mechanism of accountability regarding cleanliness of facilities and that all prisoners be given proper cleaning supplies.
The committee's further recommendations touch on shower access, the provision of written information upon intake, free and private access to counsel, contact with family and friends, access to a library, spiritual services, smudging availability for Indigenous individuals, delivery of programming, addressing and preventing racism, stripsearch policies be developed in writing, consultation on developing a new system for distributing methadone, suboxone or other medications, inmate committees and access to mental and physical health and dental care.
“ECPJS recommends investment of resources into community alternatives to incarceration, both in the form of remand and sentence,” the report said.
“During election time, we have an opportunity to assess our political leaders and their parties — not just their promises, but their actions — and to signal to them what they must do to earn and maintain the public's support and trust.”
Heather Fairbairn, spokeswoman for the Department of Justice, issued an emailed statement on Monday.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult for all Nova Scotians. Correctional Services has a comprehensive COVID-19 prevention plan in place and we continue to work closely with public health to maintain a safe environment for persons in custody and staff in our facilities,” Fairbairn wrote.