1. Some thoughts on solitary confinement.
On Thursday, Tim reported on another account of solitary confinement at Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility.
I would like to share here some of the stories of solitary confinement I have been told by prisoners in that facility. (Identifying details are changed to protect the prisoners.)
One prisoner tells me about being cut off his psychiatric medication abruptly. He goes into severe withdrawal and experiences hallucinations. Unable to “control” himself, he is thrown into the hole where the isolation makes his symptoms worse. He ends up strapped to a chair, being restrained because he is “violent.” When he tells me this story, he also recounts his severe humiliation and the trauma he still suffers from the experience.
A young Mi’kmaq man tells me about being assaulted in the jail and becoming suicidal. He cannot report the assault without being labelled a “rat” which would lead to him being placed on a lockdown range anyway for his own “safety.” He becomes suicidal and attempts to kill himself, which leads to him being placed in “health seg” where he is stripped of his clothes and left in a cell where the lights are on constantly. Later, in another jail, he will drink hand sanitizer and pass out in his cell, which results in him being sent to solitary confinement again.
Another prisoner is suspected of carrying drugs into the jail and is placed in the “dry cell” where he is supposed to be observed until he shits out the drugs. He doesn’t, and is in the dry cell for over a week. This experience of having his clothes taken, being observed, and placed in a solitary cell leads to him becoming suicidal, at which point he is placed in a suicide cell under similar conditions. After 24 hours, he decides he can’t take the conditions anymore and tells the staff that he was lying about being suicidal so he can be released. He does not receive any mental health counselling.
A prisoner suffering from mental health problems is frequently bullied by other inmates. Because he is bounced off ranges, he ends up on a lockdown range, where due to the overcrowding of inmates, they do not receive the mandated hours of recreation time or time outside.
A prisoner on a lockdown range tells me that the walls of his cell are caked with human shit. There is no way to clean the cell adequately. Another inmate tells me that in solitary confinement after a “shit bomb war” the range becomes so hazardous that the nursing staff refuses to come on the range to dispense medication. Rather than hire a medical cleaner, eventually inmates are given canteen to clean up the range without appropriate protective gear.
Another Mi’kmaq inmate tells me that he is denied access to his smudge kit and when he complains he is placed in solitary confinement.
An inmate is “stomped out” on the range, and sent to the hospital. When he returns to the jail he cannot return to the range he was on, so he ends up on a range by himself, yet under 23 hour lockdown. Before he was stomped, he was attacked by an other inmate, and yet was left on the range to get attacked again.
These accounts are what is told to me. They are representative of the many, many accounts by prisoners I have been told over the years. They are not even the worst stories. Prisoners often talk about making complaints, but conclude that the complaint process would place them at risk, has been unsuccessful when they tried, and is not worth it to them. They believe nobody will hear their stories, or that if they tell them, people will say they deserve what happens to them.
Many of them also do not have the language to speak about their trauma, or to identify mental illness, or how their reactions resulted from experiencing terrible circumstances. They may know that they “freaked out” on the range after returning from solitary, and blame themselves for being out of control or “having something wrong with them” so that they can’t “behave.” They have no help for addictions, or mental illness, or histories of violence or trauma that contribute to them “acting out” in the jail and being disciplined by solitary confinement. They know that going to solitary makes them worse, and blame themselves for not being able to break the cycle.
It seems everyone is following Making a Murderer lately and having conversations about wrongful conviction and the justice system. But so often, it is easier for us to think about wrongful conviction, because then the treatment prisoners suffer is clearly “unfair.” But even if a prisoner is guilty, they still don’t deserve to suffer these traumas. And in Burnside, many of these prisoners are on remand and have not even been to trial yet. Jail staff have spoken of being frustrated in not having the tools or resources available to intervene or work with mentally ill inmates, or to help identify mental health problems.
A model of incarceration that uses discipline in the place of rehabilitation doesn’t actually contribute to the goal of safer jails, but works to create more violence, more anger, and more problems.
2. Thank you for calling Telmate
Speaking of isolation, one of the most important things for prisoners and families is phone calls. Maintaining connection to families and communities is important in supporting prisoners through their time inside, and particularly in helping them to have supports when they get out. For prisoners who are parents, phone calls are obviously vital in being able to be present in their childrens’ lives. Having supports on the outside are one of the most important factors in reintegrating people when they get out, and in preventing recidivism.
Which is why the cost of phone calls for inmates should be a concern for everybody. Calls from the “new jail” (North East Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Pictou) cost $7. By comparison, calls from Burnside cost $1.20 a call (for 20 minutes.) This cost doesn’t include the approximately 30 per cent service fees that are placed on top of the cost of calls. For example. $60 of calls from Pictou actually costs $88 if you pay for the calls over the phone system.
Seven dollars a call is absurd. Even if the call is local, inmates are still being charged the same cost. Most families cannot afford to pay this much. Even $20 of phone calls is less than three calls a month, which is more than many people on a fixed income can afford. As a result, many people go months without being able to call their families or loved ones. Some inmates will even end up trading food or medication to get a call. To provide a contrast, in most prisons in Canada, prisoners in solitary can expect 10 calls a month, or one every three days — even when prisoners are being punished and phone privileges revoked, there is still a recognition that some phone contact is necessary. Placing phone calls out of reach for inmates due to cost is effectively removing their access to phones and to family and the world outside.
Phone calls in the provincial system are through Telmate (the website where you pay for calls is ironically called gettingout.com), a corporation based in the United States. This report from prisonpolicy.org examines the financial abuse and exploitation of families through predatory phone systems in jail. The study centers on the United States, and the authors observe:
Several unique and deliberate features of the prison phone industry lead to these prices. First, each prison system or local jail enters into an exclusive contract with a telephone company, granting that telephone company a monopoly in the state prisons or at the local jail. Second, in all but a few locations, the telephone companies are contractually obligated to pay a large portion of the revenue collected back to the correctional facility, thereby increasing the per-minute calling rates. Such kickbacks are known as “commissions.”Third, in order to collect revenue to make up the money lost to commissions, prison telephone companies add hefty charges through multitudes of extra fees that often nearly double the price of a call. These fees — the vast majority of which do not exist in the ordinary telephone market — drive the telephone bills charged to people with incarcerated loved ones to astronomical levels.
I can’t find any studies that specifically address the phone system in jails in Canada, but many of the core issues of the study around predatory phone practices are true in Canada as well. As the report observes, these costs are largely absorbed by the families of inmates — often in particular by women, who are being exploited by these unregulated costs.
These fees are not based on actual costs of calls, as seen by the inconsistency of pricing across the province. In addition, the increased costs at certain jails can result in phone access being part of punitive action on inmates — involuntarily transferring an inmate from Burnside to the new jail may result in them effectively losing contact with family.
Many people probably have not thought about the phone system in prison. Those who do have family or loved ones in prison often do not speak about these issues because of the shame and stigma of incarceration. And of course the communities and people that most suffer from incarceration are also the poorest and most powerless. The silencing of issues around incarceration allows predatory and exploitive phone practices to take place. Phone companies should not be allowed to gouge prisoners and their families simply because they don’t have any other options, and because they can. We should all be disgusted at these practices.
3. Playing the game
The president of Cape Breton University says the 100 per cent strike vote is “part of the game.”
“This is not great timing for us in terms of generating generous deals,” he said.
Wheeler said CBU must cut costs by 10 per cent. That means taking $5 million out of its $50 million budget in three to four years.
In 2013-2014, Wheeler made $265, 792.
In other words, “we have to cut costs, but don’t expect me to take a pay cut.”
4. Something smells fishy…
I guess if someone comes up to you and offers to sell you live lobster from the trunk of a car you should probably be careful.
I find this part of the article strange:
Forty-eight crates of live lobster have been reported stolen from an outdoor pound on Cape Sable Island on the southwestern tip of Nova Scotia…
…Last month 14 crates of lobster were stolen from Morris Island wharf in Yarmouth County.
RCMP Const. Mark Skinner said police have no reason to believe the two thefts are related.
I mean, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that there’s multiple lobster thieves in Nova Scotia.
We should probably look for this guy:
Maybe they’re not actually thefts, maybe someone is liberating lobsters and repatriating them to the ocean. Maybe the first set of lobsters escaped and now they’re going around the province freeing their lobster brethren, and then we’ll all be attacked by vengeful crustaceans.
5. Just Saying
The Chronicle Herald management probably read this story about an 11-year old reporter and promptly contacted her about “freelancing” for the Herald. Why stop at King’s students when there’s elementary school children out there?
This article about Wanda Taylor’s new book on the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children raises difficult questions about the responsibilities of writers. Taylor’s book contains experiences of former residents of the home as well as drawing upon government and court documents. Former resident and activist Tony Smith questions whether residents were taken advantage of, and the harm that may be caused to the inquiry and to residents by the use of their stories.
These are questions all writers have to struggle with. Particularly in the context of hidden, erased, and forgotten histories of Black communities and people, researching, telling and analyzing our stories and experiences is important. Taylor points out that she drew upon public documents in writing the book. But as Smith argues, the residents are already telling their own stories, and continue to testify and advocate for themselves through the inquiry and other processes. It is also true that historically, Black people have been made the subjects rather than the agents of history — his concerns about the words and experiences of the former residents being appropriated and exploited have serious weight.
Smith’s criticisms also raise questions about when stories become collective. In the case of Africville, for example, many African Canadians who are not Africville families, or not African Nova Scotian, nonetheless feel connected to the story of Africville as particularly illustrative of histories of anti-Black racism in Canada. To what extent does Africville belong to the community of families of former residents, and to what extent does it “belong” to histories of Canada and Black Canadians? When do stories pass from the affected group into wider histories — we all, for example, share in the stories and histories of our enslaved ancestors, but they are also no longer living. On the one hand, Africville and the Coloured Home speak to racism in the province and in Canada, which affects all Black people. But as Smith asserts, the residents are the ones who are potentially harmed by misappropriation of their stories, and to deny them ownership over and agency of their stories is to participate in perpetuating the silencing and exploitation already experienced by children in the Home.
I don’t have answers to these questions. Obviously, as a writer, I write about experiences that aren’t mine. Today I wrote about solitary confinement — with the knowledge of those people whose stories I was telling — but still, I am the one framing these voices and shaping their experiences for an audience.
I also obviously believe in the importance of Black voices being heard and in writing about Black issues. I have written about things like the restorative inquiry, so I clearly am also in the position of thinking about whether these stories are “public” or whether and at what point we are speaking over voices rather than with them.
It is also true that sometimes we have to write about topics or from perspectives that aren’t necessarily popular, but that engage in important processes of critique and questioning. But, as Joan Didion said, “…one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.”
We do have an ethical responsibility to the people we write about, but finding where the line is between advocating and exploiting isn’t always obvious or easy. Tony Smith calls upon us to always remember the people and voices who lived the story and the experience, and insists that we allow those voices to speak for themselves. How we can center these voices, and also, particularly as Black writers, engage with issues of racism in our communities, is obviously a challenge, but something that is important for us to think about and recognize.
The residents called their advocacy group V.O.I.C.E.S., which clearly speaks to the significance of speaking and being heard on their own terms.
2. Cranky Letter of the Day
From the Pictou Advocate:
Constituent seeking contact info for MP
To the Editor:
Now if my memory serves me correctly, we had an election back in the month of October. Now my question is, where is the member that got elected for Central Nova? For it would seem to me that he has gone into hiding. There is no phone number where he can be reached or no office that one can visit him or a staff member to talk to.
There are people here in the riding who want to talk to him about different matters. So if the elected member is Sean Fraser, you can come out of hiding and get a phone number and office so people can get in touch with you. For after all, you are their member of Parliament in Ottawa, and they voted for you and have the right to make their concerns known to you.
Myself, as a veteran, I would like to know just how soon the veteran offices are going to reopen. There were other things talked about on the campaign trail about veterans and promises made that we all need answers to.
So I will say, Mr. Fraser, let’s get with it and do the job you were elected for.
Loyd Murray, New Glasgow
3. Cranky Letter of the Day II
From the Chronicle Herald:
Re: Your Jan. 13 article on the new committee tasked with tracking escaped salmon from open-pen fin fish feedlots in Nova Scotia. Why not just get the pens out of our oceans and put them on land? Then you won’t have to waste money, time and effort in tracking these garbage fish. What is the purpose of tracking them? To simply say, “Oh, there goes a farmed salmon up the LaHave River!” Or will someone follow them and kill them? I don’t think so.
Are they going to use acoustic tags? They range in price from $500 to $5,000 each. Imagine the cost of putting those on millions of farmed salmon. No doubt they will use a $1 plastic tag. And the only way to track it would be to catch the escapee.
Why not give the money it would cost to implement and maintain the tracking to the operators to start land-based salmon farms? Now that would be money well spent.
Did they move April Fool’s to Jan. 12?
Larry Shortt, Lower Sackville