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

Prisoners in the Burnside jail say that conditions are “worse than ever” since the peaceful protest that ended September 9.

They are calling for independent oversight of the provincial prisons and an external review of conditions, legal aid funding for adequate representation for habeas applications, and intervention by the Human Rights Commission. They describe a human rights crisis inside the provincial jail.

According to prisoners, the conditions in the jail are “worse than segregation.” Since the protest, they say they have been locked down almost constantly. These conditions persist even when there are no incidents or behaviour problems.

They are frequently receiving only an hour out of their cells a day, and sometimes as little as half an hour. In the time that they have out of their cells, they have to shower, get exercise, and use the phones, including phone calls to their lawyers — restrictions they say are affecting their access to legal representation.

“At least in segregation you’re guaranteed an hour out a day and a phone call,” one prisoner told The Examiner.

They are trying to turn this place into a boot camp.

Although Section 57 of the Correctional Services Act guarantees prisoners a minimum of 30 minutes a day for outdoor exercise, prisoners say that fewer than 10 people a day are able to get outside for recreation.

Prisoners say they are “losing faith” in a court process where they repeatedly file habeas corpus applications protesting the lockdown conditions, and are left to represent themselves, only to have those conditions declared moot when officials from the jail testify the lockdown has ended. The prisoners allege that immediately after they return from court, the lockdown conditions are re-instated.

“It feels like the courts are complicit,” says a prisoner.

They are violating our rights, and the jail officials just go to court and lie, and the courts won’t do anything about it. And every time we do this, the conditions just get worse.

Prisoners say that “not one demand” has been met from the peaceful protest, and that when they ask questions about the conditions they receive “no answers.” They also allege that they are punished arbitrarily, making the conditions even more difficult.

In one example, prisoners described a group who were stuck outside in the air court while the guards sent the rest of the range to lock up. When the prisoners outside finally got in, they went to say goodnight to their friends, and then went to their cells. They say they were punished the next day and locked in their cells for disobeying an order to lock up, even though they were not on the range when the order was given. Prisoners say that this kind of unfair punishment is commonplace and that they have no avenues to complain.

In another recent example, prisoners described heat that was so sweltering on the range that eventually a couple of prisoners refused to go to their cells in protest. The whole range was locked down as a result.

Even more disturbingly, given the report into the death of Joshua Evans that showed staff didn’t follow policy on monitoring prisoners, prisoners say that despite the fact they are being held for months in lockdown conditions, there is no mental health monitoring.

“These conditions are causing us mental issues,” says a prisoner.

We are experiencing anxiety, we’re not interacting well with each other or with the staff, and then when we get agitated and people boil over, they just level us [punish them by locking them in their cells] and it makes everything worse.

As Tim Bousquet reported, David Tanner, who filed a habeas application in early December, wrote that:

…We believe as offenders in the facility, we are entitled to a minimum of 30 minutes of air court time and minimum one hour cooperative range time outside our cells. We understand in the event of violence or security concerns, these may be restricted, but our unit has experienced no incidents in the last two weeks. They have refused phone calls and privileges, including important calls to legal support. It appears that the situation is causing myself and others emotional and physical distress, and unfortunately an inmate/offender has attempted suicide by cutting wrists in response to these conditions.

Multiple prisoners told the Examiner that they are struggling with mental health issues as a result of months-long conditions of confinement. Prisoners also believe that the conditions are leading to increased incidents between prisoners and with staff and are making the jail more unsafe.

“People say, that’s just Burnside,” argues a prisoner.

But incompetence is not the norm where I’m from. And I believe in accountability, because I am held accountable. So how do you get away with keeping people in these conditions who are presumed innocent with no due process? There’s no presumption of innocence. And I believe there’s also a racial component. Everybody in positions of authority just looks away. I’ve written numerous times begging for programs, begging for help, and they don’t do anything.

And people are going to say be non-violent, be non-violent, and I try to be non-violent, I try to deal with it in the right way — in a democratic way — but if [the officers and officials] are not being democratic to me, when that goes out the window, I’m going to react. When you’re going through stress and you’re locked down, it magnifies things, and it multiplies it, and it comes out in not the best way. Yeah, you’re going to strike out. Toxic environments create toxic situations. 

Other allegations by prisoners include the common use of illegal strip searches, a practice confirmed by former staff at the facility. Prisoners described to me the process of going to court: they are strip-searched when they leave the range, strip-searched again when they get to A & D (Admissions and Discharge), strip-searched by the sheriffs at court, strip-searched when they return to the jail, and often strip-searched again when they get back to the range. Despite the installation of body scanners at a cost of $190, 000 per scanner, prisoners say they are strip-searched every time they move around the facility in a clear violation of the Corrections Act and the Charter of Human Rights.

Despite testimony by provincial officials that segregation conditions are being addressed, prisoners say that in reality, the conditions of segregation are now being applied to the entire facility.

“When we had the peaceful protest and we saw the attention it got, we had some hope things would get better,” a prisoner told me.

But instead, it made them angry, and now they are punishing us even worse. And nobody will help us. It feels like everyone is colluding, the jail, the judges, the lawyers, the politicians. In some ways, the silence is worse than the violence.

Below is an excerpt of a plea for help from a prisoner incarcerated at Burnside:

Once inside, we are being taken advantage of and our lack of experience and  knowledge required to understand or combat the state resources against us. All the while we are being segregated, disrespected, the Charter of Rights circumvented, maligned, mistreated, loss of dignity, decency and autonomy. Because we are a poor, marginalized, at risk, disadvantaged demographic we are requesting help…

We are all appalled that it has in fact come to this as we had intended our peaceful protest as the necessary ground to gain momentum to carry us forward. Instead, our movements seem to have angered our captors and put us in an even worse position. By far, things are worse than they’ve ever been in recent memory.

Going into 2019, we have no legal means to present a viable defence, and no recourse against lockdowns even though there are no behavioural infractions. We are locked in our cells 22 hours a day for weeks on end, with no relief or end in sight. Disciplinary levels are handed out for the most meagre infractions and we are subjected to heavy-handed punishments by non-independent adjudicators putting no weight on institutional bias. We wait for verdicts that are strict, imposing restrictions that go past the acknowledged days permitted according to their rules which are never adhered to.

The food is abhorrent and not fresh nor does it come with the right condiments. We’ve been virtually shut off from gym and given no access to exercise. Never given answers to questions or concerns. Legal papers are not given to us or received, personal mail is kept by staff, photocopied and we are handed cheap replicas of personal correspondence. Visits are given no concern despite limits on who can get visits and when, and as well visits are routinely denied and we never receive answers until it’s too late to do anything about it.

We are disregarded, over-searched, kept waiting in the freezing cold and scorching hot paddy wagons outside of the facility for hours on end. Prisons are full of society’s stereotyped, ridiculed, railroaded, overcharged. We’re overwhelmed, given no access to health care, no relevant or culturally responsive reading material, overcrowded, forbidden, no access to mental health safeguards, no access to minority religious programs, and where people are forced to sleep and live every night of the week is infested with disease, mice, mucus, piss, stool, blood, puss, old food, and it’s disturbing and disgusting.

And all of this is happening with government funds, and under the name of Her Majesty the Queen. If you don’t believe us, we encourage you as taxpayers. Make inquiries. Just ask. Something needs to be done now because this is unhealthy and unacceptable. 

“Our failure to defend those who are demonized and persecuted leaves us all demonized and persecuted. Our failure to demand justice for everyone leaves us all without justice. Our failure to halt the crushing of popular movements that stand unequivocally with the oppressed leaves us all oppressed. Our failure to protect our democracy leaves us without a democracy.”  — Chris Hedges.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” — Martin Luther King Jr.

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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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