A photo of Martha Paynter
Martha Paynter

Martha Paynter is a nurse, nursing PhD student, and director of Women’s Wellness Within.

On August 21, the prisoners at the Burnside provincial jail launched a peaceful protest, in solidarity with a large prisoner strike in the United States, to call for basic improvements in health care, rehabilitation, exercise, visits, clothing, food, air quality and library access.

Women’s Wellness Within, a registered non-profit organization of volunteers that support criminalized women and transgender people in pregnancy and parenting, has been going into Burnside for over five years for meetings with administrators and health care providers, to facilitate workshops for the women on health topics, and to provide one-on-one support during pregnancy, labour and delivery, and postpartum. Women’s Wellness Within has launched several advocacy campaigns to call for health equity for prisoners, and we support the prisoner strike action.

Our work is focused on women’s health. Women are a small minority of the Burnside prisoners, about 48 people. Two-thirds of Burnside prisoners are on remand, which is pretrial custody, and Nova Scotia has one of the highest rates of remand in the world. So most of the women are imprisoned before any conviction. Once imprisoned, their families are disrupted. The imprisonment of a parent is one of the core Adverse Childhood Events that was found to predict higher rates of disease and early death in the landmark “ACEs” study. Imprisonment separates women from their families and support systems.

Most criminalized women are victims of crime. Most women inside have been subjected to sexual, physical, and emotional abuse as children. They are traumatized, and their mental health is affected. Rates of substance use disorder, mental illness, and suicide are extraordinarily high among imprisoned women. So are rates of infectious disease. Studies have found imprisoned women have low health literacy. Women inside need more health care, not less.

There have been claims that health care is better at Burnside than outside. This is simply not true.

Imprisonment removes someone’s autonomy for their own health maintenance and strips them of options for the self-care our society is so keen to promote. Prisoners inside do not have access to the Internet.

If a woman has symptoms, she cannot Google them to try to understand what is happening. The cost to call her mom for advice is prohibitive. She cannot walk to a drug store to discuss it with a pharmacist or purchase over-the-counter medication for common health concerns like a headache, a yeast infection, or constipation. She cannot line up at a walk-in clinic for a few hours.

She can write a request to see a physician, give it to a correctional officer, hope and wait for weeks. Burnside imprisons 370 people. There is a physician available two half-days per week. Burnside is a place of violence and injury. Common minor problems like yeast infections and constipation are not clinical emergencies, but living with them makes a challenging situation unbearable, and risks causing serious consequences.

Pregnant women at Burnside cannot use the Department of Health’s only prenatal program, the online Welcome to Parenting module, to prepare for their new baby. They are not informed of when they will be transported to clinical appointments offsite, such as for ultrasonography. They cannot have their partner or their mom with them for the joyful and the frightening parts of these appointments. They have no control over the food they get to eat while they manage morning sickness.

Depression is the most common complication of pregnancy, and yet women in Burnside cannot even go for a walk to clear their minds and stretch their legs. Unlike on Orange is the New Black, prisoners in Burnside do not have a grassy “yard” for fresh air and exercise. There is a small, concrete-floor, brick-wall enclosure, with chain-link fence over the top like a cage. Pregnant women are vulnerable to physical and mental punishment that includes solitary confinement (administrative segregation). The Deep published a story last year about the devastating impact of solitary confinement on a woman remanded late in her pregnancy.

Unlike at some federal prisons and a British Columbia jail, new babies cannot stay with their mothers inside Burnside. They cannot even touch their mothers at a visit. If how we treat pregnant women and new babies is a barometer of conditions, imagine what everyone else is experiencing.

We know most prisoners come from backgrounds of poverty, homelessness, unemployment, low educational attainment, and trauma. These are the determinants of poor health. Imprisonment is making the poor health of prisoners worse. Prisoners at Burnside are discriminated against and denied access to curative Hepatitis C treatment. Staff describe the jail as filthy. During this summer’s heat wave, prisoners called it stiflingly hot. The jail is criticized for overuse of solitary confinement. There is evidence that prisoners see their medications withheld. Burnside leadership say the jail is “operating as usual” despite the protest. That is the problem: normal at Burnside is not humane.

We need to support the prisoners in their basic requests, and we must go much further to work towards implementing alternatives to incarceration that will truly support health, rehabilitation, and a just and inclusive society.

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  1. We in Canada like to think of ourselves as a caring, compassionate society. My guess is that most Nova Scotians who have never served time nor had loved ones do so have no idea what happens in jail. I believe many would take the view that you had to have done something bad to be there, so you deserve everything you get from rape and bashings to bad food.

    The courts can only sentence the convicted to serve time in government institutions like Burnside. I suppose governments choose to operate these places at the lowest possible cost, which may well indeed lead to damaging the physical and mental state of inmates, but as long as nothing really embarrassing happens – which might directly threaten them in the ballot box – they couldn’t care less.
    Besides, people in NS feel overtaxed and barely making ends meet. There are no votes in prison reform.

    So sadly, I imagine this is going to continue until there is some sort of major, ugly incident leading to a public inquiry that puts governments responsible for these places in the harsh glare they deserve. Maybe it will take lives lost and destruction of expensive property, perhaps an embarrassing rebuke directly from the UN. Maybe then – when continuing to do nothing could cost more votes that doing what they should always have done to meet minimum humanitarian standards – would I expect to see governments act, and then only to save their own electoral hides.

    What happens in prisons is out of sight and out of mind for most of us. El Jones and now you Martha are the only folks I know who have written about this in a widely read public forum like The Examiner. Great work. One more straw to hopefully break this ugly camel’s back someday. Too bad for the folks there now.