The inside of a cell at Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Burnside. It's super small, and everything is painted beige. There are two bunks, one obscuring the small window. There's a tiny table bolted to the wall, and one stool bolted to the floor. The toilet sink combo is in the corner by the door. Very homey.
A jail cell in the north wing of the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility. Photo: Halifax Examiner

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Thirty-one prisoners at the jail in Burnside have tested positive for COVID-19.

The provincial Department of Justice announced the outbreak at Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in a news release on Friday. It said no one has been hospitalized, and none of the cases are in the female unit of the jail. “Several staff” have also tested positive, the government said.

There are no confirmed cases at other provincial facilities.

“Measures are in place to minimize the spread of the virus, including distribution of medical masks, restrictions on movement through the facility, increased cleaning and disinfecting. The situation is being monitored closely and assessed daily,” the government said in the release.

The outbreak follows one reported earlier this week in one of two federal prisons in Nova Scotia.

Correctional Service Canada said in a news release on Tuesday that there’s a COVID-19 outbreak at Nova Institute for Women in Truro. On Tuesday, there were eight positive cases. The most recent numbers, posted online and last updated Wednesday, indicated 19 active cases with the first cases reported on Dec. 25. In an email on Friday, Correctional Service Canada spokesperson Mylène Arseneau said 25 staff have tested positive.

Women’s Wellness Within chair Martha Paynter called on Wednesday for the federal government to address the situation and “facilitate early release for as many prisoners as possible, as quickly as possible.”

At the only other federal facility in Nova Scotia, Springhill Institution, the government was reporting zero active cases as of Wednesday.

In the provincial jail system, where most prisoners are awaiting trial, that kind of disclosure isn’t routine. It’s unclear from the news release on Friday when the cases were first identified.

On Dec. 21, East Coast Prison Justice Society wrote a letter to public health officials and the provincial Department of Justice calling for the government to release prisoners to reduce the COVID risk, as it has previously.

“The Omicron variant is by far the most contagious strain of the COVID-19 virus to date. For this reason, it is our view that only adequate defense to the spread of COVID-19 inside our jails, and consequent preventable deaths, is strategic decarceration—that is, ensuring that admissions and numbers of prisoners held in facilities are as low as possible, consistent with public safety,” co-chairs Harry Critchley and Sheila Wildeman wrote.

To decarcerate, the Society urged the province to set up temporary or conditional absences for sentenced prisoners and expedited bail hearings for those awaiting trial. It also called for increased funding for non-profits, including the Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia, the Coverdale Courtwork Society, and the John Howard Society, to house people on bail.

Having received no response, Wildeman followed up with the department on Monday. On Tuesday, Deputy Minister of Justice Candace Thomas replied with a letter on behalf of Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang and Justice Minister Brad Johns.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has been and continues to be difficult for Nova Scotians. Despite taking every precaution, positive cases of the virus have been identified in the inmate population and corrections employees,” Thomas wrote.

“As we have seen elsewhere in the province, our correctional facilities are not immune to this virus. On the advice of public health, the units where the cases were confirmed have been locked down temporarily to keep persons in custody safe. The situation is being monitored closely and assessed daily.”

Thomas wrote that East Coast Prison Justice Society could bring up its concerns during a meeting with John Scoville, director of corrections services, scheduled for Jan. 24, 2022.

On Friday, East Coast Prison Justice Society and Women’s Wellness Within released a joint statement calling for more transparency.

“In recent days we have learned of an exponential increase of COVID-19 numbers at the federal Nova facility for women in Truro. There is no comparable routine public reporting of COVID-19 rates in provincial corrections,” the two organizations said in the statement.

“East Coast Prison Justice Society has, however, received confirmation from the Deputy Minister of Justice of positive COVID-19 cases among prisoners and staff; we have further been advised that the response has been to lock down affected units.”

Another difference between the Nova Institute outbreak and the provincial jails is vaccinations rates. At Nova, nearly 88% of prisoners are fully vaccinated. Vaccine uptake among the male population in provincial jails is less than 50%, according to East Coast Prison Justice Society, “with the lowest vaccination rates being amongst African Nova Scotian and/or Indigenous persons, who are disproportionately represented in provincial custody.”

That low uptake stems from “a longstanding culture of fear and mistrust vis-à-vis healthcare delivery in provincial corrections,” according to East Coast Prison Justice Society.” The solution is culturally-relevant education, the Society said in its Dec. 21 letter, pointing to the work of Dr. Tiffany Richards as an example.

The two organizations’ joint statement makes five specific requests of government:

  1. Ensure vaccinations are available to prisoners and staff and that community representatives are engaged to help build trust;
  2. Institute other protective measures including distribution of masks of sufficient quality and quantity to protect against Omicron, and access to frequent COVID-19 testing;
  3. Ensure that prisoners’ health and human rights are impaired as little as possible while promoting public health, including by documenting the duration of lockdowns and any measures taken to ensure the least restriction necessary to meet public health objectives;
  4. Re-institute expedited bail hearings and bail reviews, and reviews of eligibility for temporary absences;
  5. Collaborate with the non-profit sector (including Elizabeth Fry Societies, Coverdale Courtwork Society and John Howard Society) to provide short- and long-term supports for persons released from detention and alternatives to pre-trial detention (“bail beds”) as well as community access for East Coast Forensic Hospital patients granted community release.

There were 233 prisoners at the Burnside jail as of Wednesday, according to the news release on Friday. The province said it has a “comprehensive COVID-19 prevention and management plan in place.”

“Admissions and releases continue to be effectively managed at the correctional facilities, which have been taking place since the beginning of the pandemic. Eligible inmates are considered for early release following established protocols.”

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Zane Woodford

Zane Woodford is the Halifax Examiner’s municipal reporter. He covers Halifax City Hall and contributes to our ongoing PRICED OUT housing series. Twitter @zwoodford

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