On Tuesday morning, I attended the media tour of Burnside jail with Tim. Tim summarized the tour this way:

This was a PR exercise on the part of Corrections, and as such things go, was well-run. Corrections staff were informative and answered even the most pointed questions. Reporters did not, however, get the chance to interact or talk with inmates; I would’ve liked to have had that chance to hear what they thought. Still, I got a real sense of jail operations, and I’m glad I went.

The Burnside jail. Photo: Halifax Examiner

I spoke with people who are incarcerated or were formerly incarcerated at the facility for their response to what I learned on the tour.

On overcrowding

Tim asked staff early in the tour about overcrowding in the facility. He was informed that the jail is not overcrowded, and that the target is that the jail operates at 80 per cent capacity.

This clashes with consistent reports by prisoners that they have been triple bunked at times during the construction. Women have reported sleeping without mattresses, and there have been reports that people have had to be moved to segregation because of problems with space.

Officials have always claimed that the jail is underpopulated, despite the exploding remand numbers in the province, up 192 per cent in the last decade.

The renovated North Unit day room at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility. Photo: Halifax Examiner

What accounts for the discrepancy between what prisoners report about available space and the insistence by officials that the jail is not overcrowded?

As this 2015 report from Public Services Foundation of Canada indicates:

According to the Nova Scotia Department of Justice (NSDJ), the total average daily count of inmates has increased by 21 per cent over a 5-year period. The greatest increase for those housed in the province’s correctional facilities was for remand purposes.

During 2009–2010, there were in total 431 inmates in the province’s 5 jails, a number that jumped to 523 for 2013–2014. As of March 2014, there were 554 beds in the province’s adult facilities (9 per cent of them allotted for female offenders). 

With the province’s jails at approximately 94 per cent capacity on average, it is clear that on some days these facilities are most certainly overcrowded. Indeed, of those 554 beds, almost two-thirds are in the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility (CNSCF). In a dynamic reminiscent of the capacity figures employed in Ontario, the NSDJ claims that the CNSCF has a capacity of 370 inmates, even though the facility was originally designed for 272. The new figure represents an increase of 136 per cent over the intended capacity for the building, a discrepancy that can be accounted for by the normalization of double-bunking.

The report goes on to describe correctional officers’ concerns about overcrowding in the facility and the increase in violent incidents as a result. The authors also indicate that the unmanageable jail population has led to increased use of segregation in the province.

In this article from 2014, correctional staff indicate that at the current capacity, basic amenities are lacking for prisoners:

[A former correctional officer] said the jail was built for 272 men, but 350 are often placed there with admitting and discharging rooms used as long-term housing cells although they have no proper shower or phone access.

Other impacts of the renovations

It didn’t come up during the tour, but because the renovations caused many of the ranges at Burnside to be closed down, people had to be transferred out to other provincial facilities.

One effect of these transfers was addressed by prisoners who protested the cost of phones. Because people from Halifax were placed in facilities hours away from home, they ended up having to pay long distance phone costs on calls. Calls from these facilities cost $7 for a 20 minute call, plus additional service fees. 

Photo: Halifax Examiner

You can read the petition about exploitive phone costs created by prisoners at the Pictou facility here.

On direct supervision

Blair Rhodes’ reported correctional officers’ concerns with the direct supervision model.

Officials report that use of force incidents are down in facilities where the model is used, and that the rapport created between staff and prisoners as well as the constant presence on the range reduces conflict and allows for prevention and mediation.

From the perspective of people incarcerated who have experienced direct supervision, while they agreed that you do get to know the staff better, they felt uncomfortable with the increased surveillance.

This surveillance particularly affects Black prisoners. One person reported that the guards “stare at you all the time,” which resulted in him being reluctant to leave his cell to go into the dayroom where he felt constantly observed. He suggested that when Black prisoners grouped together or even had a conversation together, staff would direct increased scrutiny towards them.

Image from thyblackman.com

In one incident he described, there were two TVs on the range. The older people would watch one TV, and the younger guys would watch the other one because of different tastes in shows. When he first came on the range, he was the only Black guy, but due to transfers from Burnside because of the construction, a number of other Black people came on the range. When they watched TV together, staff immediately identified that TV as the “Black TV,” commented on the Black guys hanging out together, and began reporting on and monitoring them.

This racialized surveillance and control extends to labelling Black prisoners who are perceived as having influence over other Black prisoners as troublemakers, and subjecting them to disproportionate discipline. When race-based statistics on institutional discipline are kept, they show racial disparities:

Although prison rules are rigorously framed, discipline can be highly discretionary or subjective in some cases. Previous research in prisons in Ontario indicates that Black inmates are more likely to be charged with misconduct that involves subjective judgement on the part of correctional officers (e.g. disrespect toward staff, disobeying a rule, etc.) and less likely to be charged with misconduct where correctional officers must show factual proof, such as possession of contraband. This is important because institutional charges can have serious consequences and may lead to additional time added to a sentence and/or denial of parole.

In one disciplinary incident described to me by a Black prisoner, white guys got in a fight on the range. The Black guys were playing a video game and were not involved. When staff came onto the range, they immediately approached the Black guys. The first officer yelled at a Black prisoner to stay seated and not to move. Another officer arrived, and began yelling at him to go to his cell and lock up. Concerned about making the wrong move, and then being subjected to pepper spray or to other violent restraints, the prisoner asked the officers if they wanted him to sit there or to go lock up because he couldn’t do both. This was interpreted as insubordination and disobeying an order, and he received an institutional charge. This charge was then brought up at his bail hearing and used to portray him as a problem in the jail.

From slave ship to panopticon. Image of Simone Browne from UCI Humanities Institute.

Simone Browne argues that surveillance technologies and practices emerge from the trans-Atlantic slave trade and are “predicated on colonial logics of anti-Blackness, capital, governance, property and violence.” She identifies that Blackness functions “as a key site through which surveillance is practiced, narrated and enacted.” In other words, technologies such as scanners and practices of supervision are founded on histories that see Blackness as a threat to be controlled and disciplined. Surveillance systems will always target Black people because the very foundations of these practices revolve around the regulation of Blackness.

On incentives

Jim Hayman, a staff trainer with correctional services, suggested that under the direct supervision system prisoners would be provided with incentives for appropriate behaviour. According to people at the Northeast facility where the system already exists, they have not received any incentives.

However, one person reported that the guards are expected to spend 15 per cent of their time interacting personally with the prisoners, and that they receive bonuses for this contact.

Hayman also indicated that the goal is for prisoners to behave like “normal adults.” This prompted one incarcerated person to comment, “what are we now, animals?”

On non-lethal weapons

As Blair Rhodes reports:

When tensions do spill over, however, [Tim] Carroll said the jail is prepared. He said the first line of defence is for staff to try to regain control of the situation simply by talking to the inmates.

If that fails, he said staff are trained and ready to deploy Tasers and pepper balls to contain the situation. Pepper balls are capsules of the same ingredient as pepper spray and can be dropped into the day room to subdue any uprising.

Burnside will apparently be the first jail in Canada to use the PepperBall system. I asked Carroll to clarify what this system is, and he described it as like a paintball gun that essentially delivers pepper spray by a projectile system.

Researching this led me to the deeply creepy world of law enforcement journals, where I read through descriptions of shooting mentally ill people and protestors with various weapons.

According to law enforcement studies, “the Pepperball system is a non-lethal weapon that can deliver projectiles with enough kinetic energy to produce temporary abrasions, bruises, and/or welts.” Officers are warned:

Pepperball system may be less than lethal at point blank range, however NEVER shoot at the face, throat or groin.

It seems to me that’s quite a lot of body parts that could be hit by error, especially in a chaotic situation. What’s the likelihood of someone taking a capsule in the eye?

The PepperBall site claims:

PepperBall is safe. Even though the effect of PepperBall’s proprietary PAVA irritant is immediate and highly effective, most people exposed to the chemical agent will recover in 5 to 10 minutes. And it has a squeaky-clean track record: no reported fatalities, serious injuries or personal injury lawsuits have been filed against PepperBall in its nearly 20-year history.

This is untrue. In 2005, Victoria Snelgrove was killed by Boston police using a PepperBall projectile after the “pepper-spray pellet pierced Snelgrove’s left eye, opened a three-quarter-inch hole in the bone behind it, broke into nine pieces, and damaged the right side of her brain.” In 2012, student athlete Timothy Nelson was hit in the eye with a PepperBall fired by UC Davis police, causing him to undergo several surgeries. He lost his athletic scholarship as a result of his injuries.

Informed of this system, incarcerated people wanted to know why officers felt pepper spray isn’t damaging enough. In 2015, Matthew Hines was killed in Dorchester Penitentiary by officers who beat and repeatedly pepper-sprayed him. They then cleaned up the blood and informed his family they found him in distress and that he died of a seizure. The autopsy report concluded that Hines “likely died from lack of oxygen caused by pepper spray.” The guards, charged with manslaughter, have pled not guilty.

There has been no public inquiry into Hines’ death, yet provincial facilities are introducing a potentially more dangerous delivery system for pepper spray.

On body scanners

As Tim reported on privacy issues with the scanners:

When new technologies are adopted by provincial agencies, there is a required “Privacy Impact Assessment” (PIA) to determine how data will be controlled. The policy on the assessments is found here, and an “assessment template” that agencies are to use is found here.

After the tour, I asked spokesperson Sarah Gillis about the PIA for the body scanners. (Incidentally, Gillis has been quite helpful throughout this.) She responded:

Correctional Services conducted a Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA) on the body scanners and it is currently with the FOIPOP office for final review. The PIA will be approved and in place prior to the launch of the body scanners.

That seems backwards to me. Shouldn’t the PIA had been conducted and approved before the machines were purchased?

My concern with the scanners is around consent and compulsion. The video we were shown suggested that scans would reveal scenarios like drug pellets that have been swallowed, or a cell phone in the anus. I asked what the process would be if the scan indicated the presence of contraband in a body cavity. Officials suggested that the individual would then be dry-celled (basically they’re held in a cell in a gown and observed until they poop things out).

While people may think that body cavity searches are a regular occurrence, they are actually tightly regulated in federal prison. These are the federal guidelines:

21. Where a staff member believes, on reasonable grounds, that an inmate is carrying contraband in a body cavity, the staff member may not seize or attempt to seize that contraband, but will inform the Institutional Head.

22. As outlined in section 52 of the CCRA, if the Institutional Head is satisfied that there are reasonable grounds to believe that an inmate is carrying contraband in a body cavity and that a body cavity search is necessary in order to find or seize the contraband, the Institutional Head may authorize, in writing, a body cavity search to be conducted by a qualified medical practitioner, if the inmate’s written consent is obtained.

23. The inmate will be given reasonable opportunity to communicate with legal counsel, if desired, by telephone, before the inmate’s written consent to the body cavity search is sought.

24. The medical practitioner will conduct the body cavity search under appropriate conditions, suited to a consensual non-emergency examination, once consent has been obtained.

When I asked if people would have access to a lawyer if a scan identified contraband, the staff indicated that they would not.

The federal guidelines also stipulate that prisoners have to consent to be X-rayed “by a qualified X‑ray technician to find the contraband, if the inmate consents in writing and consent of a qualified medical practitioner is obtained” and that “[t]he inmate will be given reasonable opportunity to communicate with legal counsel before being given the opportunity to consent to the use of X-ray or will be provided with the opportunity to retain and instruct legal counsel without delay upon placement in a dry cell.”

While we can debate how meaningful consent is in a federal context where people can be segregated until they agree, the guidelines at least indicate the presence of consent as a necessary component. It seems that provincial prisoners — the majority of whom are on remand and have not been convicted of anything — are being subjected to greater violation of their bodily autonomy if they are not allowed access to lawyers or to refuse the scan.

Officials suggested that body scanners have reduced contraband by 95 to 98 per cent in facilities where they are in use. This raises questions of how many more searches are being conducted. Provincial guidelines around cavity searches say:

69.  A superintendent who believes on reasonable grounds that an offender has ingested or is carrying contraband in a body cavity may temporarily restrict the offender in a manner that limits the offender’s ability to hide or dispose of contraband or bodily waste that may contain contraband, on the expectation that the contraband will be expelled.

There don’t appear to be any guidelines around conducting cavity searches, yet the scenario of contraband hidden in cavities was the focus of the presentation. These regulations suggests that only dry-celling is allowed.

There was no clear answer given to what the process would be around obtaining consent for a search, or whether a cavity search would be conducted by medical professionals in a medical setting.

Searches are particularly sensitive for women prisoners, the majority of whom are victims of sexual abuse. I interviewed people here about what it feels like to be strip-searched. In the words of one woman:

I grew up in abusive home where I was raped and continuously beat on. It makes me feel disgraced to have other people look at me while I’m naked. It’s very traumatic and brings me back to when I was a child being stripped down by my abusers.

It’s very degrading and uncomfortable. I feel very violated.

Image from prison-diaries.com

Officials also noted that staff would not be passing through the scanners. People inside were quick to point out that staff, including nurses, correctional officers, a sheriff’s deputy, and a lawyer have been convicted in the past of smuggling drugs into the facility.

Privacy lawyer David Fraser observed to me that while we imagine technology solves problems, it also creates problems. He raised the issue of false positives: could constipation, for example, be identified as swallowed drugs? Studies seem to indicate a false positive rate of five per cent for X-ray scanners, which is low, but clearly they are not infallible. And in a context where people cannot refuse, cannot consult lawyers, and are subject to invasive procedures, any possibility of a false result should be a concern.

Other thoughts

When I told people that correctional officials showed me into a cell, more than one person joked that they’re surprised they didn’t lure me in and lock the door on me. Actually, as Tim said, staff were very generous with answering questions and were very helpful. Nobody was unkind at all, and I give officials credit for knowing that I have written very critical pieces about the jail and for being willing to allow me on the tour.

A jail cell in the renovated north wing of the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility. Photo: Halifax Examiner

I was almost brought to tears on the tour when we were shown the new day room. For the first time, I had a clear picture of what it looks like when I’m taking all those calls from the jail. Looking at the phones, I thought of all the people who have called me, including for this article, and shared some of the most traumatic and humiliating experiences of their lives with me, asking me to tell their stories. Everything I have learned and all the work I have done, I owe to them.

Even though the day room was more spacious than I imagined, and the new space is very clean, it was still a chilling experience to stand in that cell and think of all the people over the years I have cared for who have lived in that space.

And in the end, what sticks with me is no matter how much money we put into renovations, how clean we make it, however much we change how staff interact and no matter how safe we make the weapons, putting people in jail is not a solution. It does not promote healing. It does not prevent crime. It is not therapy, or treatment, or housing.

If communities — like the organizations who were present at the resource fair (which everyone I talked to said they appreciated) — were given that $6.8 million dollars instead, how much more effective would they be in addressing the problems with mental illness, addiction, poverty, abuse, and systemic oppression that cause so many people to end up incarcerated?

El Jones

El Jones is a poet, journalist, professor, community advocate, and activist. Her work focuses on social justice issues such as feminism, prison abolition, anti-racism, and decolonization.

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