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

COVID-19 cases in the Burnside Jail (Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility) reached 82 on Friday, and I’m told there are now over 100 prisoners infected.

Here’s how prisoners describe conditions in the jail.

According to men incarcerated in the facility, sheriffs have replaced correctional officers as the jail struggles to meet the staffing complement. These short staffing issues have persisted for years, and have resulted in prisoners being perpetually locked down, unable to access legal calls, fresh air, exercise, or programming. Now with guards out with COVID, the situation is even worse.

Despite emergency staffing reinforcements, jail staff is not equipped in numbers or health care expertise to meet the current crisis, leading prisoners to fear for their lives should severe cases rise.

Estimates by Public Health workers place the vaccination rates for the men in Burnside at under 50%. While prisoners on the women’s side of the jail were provided access to Elizabeth Fry workers to answer their questions about vaccination, similar information was not provided to the men.

Many incarcerated men say that distrust towards authorities generally was exacerbated by what they feel is a lack of honesty towards them and the public around the jail conditions in the pandemic, the absence of culturally specific vaccine information, and bad prior experiences with health care workers and nurses (such as having to strip after receiving methadone doses). This has led to widespread doubt and anxiety about vaccination. These low vaccination rates have left the men even more vulnerable to serious infection.

Prisoners describe a facility unequipped to deal with the current rapid rate of infection, and say that they have been told the jail simply does not have the structural ability to deal with so many cases.

Those who test positive have not been removed from the larger population; instead, staff have simply created a “rotation” system where COVID-positive people are let out of their cells at different times than those who are not infected.

However, prisoners say that adequate cleaning is not done between these rotations and that until very recently, they were not provided with any personal cleaning products to sanitize common areas. In particular, they point to shared phones not being cleaned between rotations, and prisoners using socks over the receivers to attempt to protect themselves from spread.

Some of the men say that rather than being informed that they have tested positive, they simply find themselves shifted to COVID protocols and locked into their cells. This leads to heightened stress and anxiety around spread and contacts, as prisoners say they do not have enough information to protect themselves.

Those inside also point to the lack of air circulation. One prisoner in a cell with COVID-positive people on either side of him told me that the air vent system is under the beds, leading him to attempt to stop up the vents to try to prevent infection.

Due to the lack of staff, many of the men say that they have not been able to get clean laundry, and that while the facility eventually issued new bedding, they are unable to clean their clothes. They also say that while they have been issued masks, they are not able to get fresh masks quickly.

Prisoners are concerned as inadequate health care as resources are stretched.

One man recounted checking on a friend and finding him collapsed in his cell covered in vomit; it took over two hours for heath care staff to respond.

Physical isolation is impossible in a shared environment, yet the mass releases that marked the first wave of the pandemic have not been mobilized.

Universally, the men are expressing severe deterioration of their mental health as they have spent months in a lockdown state without access to exercise, education, visits, programs, yard time outside, or legal calls and visits.

As restrictions have tightened again in this wave, many wonder why the facility has not offered any mental health care to address the isolation, anxiety, and stress that is enhanced for people who are incarcerated during this pandemic. Prisoners report rising rates of self-harm and suicidal ideation, drug use and overdoses, increased stress leading to violence or other outbursts that are “treated” with further restrictions and punishments without addressing the root causes, and escalating uses of “behaviour” ranges and other forms of isolation.

They also express anger that their attempts to have the conditions they are experiencing recognized in court seem to be rebuffed by judges who reject their testimony about the effects of long lockdowns and the loss of basic rights.

Many incarcerated people feel the narratives of officials who are not at the jail daily, do not live in the conditions, and who are motivated to protect the reputation of the jail have been accepted over their own accounts. The dishonesty they say they have experienced from authorities around the conditions has made prisoners more distrustful as they feel those in power have been complicit in “sacrificing” them, leaving them feeling ignored and abandoned.

Many say they understand the realities of the pandemic, but feel betrayed that authorities have not been forthcoming in public about the true extent of the long-term restrictions on their rights or of the current crisis, and that what they feel is a lack of transparency has made it harder for incarcerated people to believe in and follow public health measures.

Prisoners emphasize that the current collapse of the system under COVID has merely revealed long-standing issues that they have been raising for years about staffing, hygiene, medical care, and neglect in the jail. They feel the current inability of the jail to handle cases, leading to a rapid spread throughout the facility, was both inevitable and preventable.

As cases continue to spread and worsen in severity, prisoners say they feel discarded and disposable; vulnerable to worse outcomes due to lowered immunity, prior health conditions, and their current living conditions.

As one man put it, “we are people, not animals, but you wouldn’t know it if you were sick in these hellish cages.”

Those who are being released into community and particularly into shelters or halfway houses fear the inadequate testing and tracking in the facility has made it more likely for infection to spread to the community.

And indeed, the organizations that support prisoners upon release from the Burnside jail are not being notified about people who are COVID-positive, says Ash Avery, the executive director of Cloverdale, an organization that provides such support.

“This has happened to us multiple times in the past week and is entirely unacceptable,” said Avery. “The explanation that I have been provided by health care at the facility is that they cannot release this information and they rely on Public Health to notify us. Given that Public Health is so backlogged, we are not getting the information until the person is already recovered. An immediate solution should be put into place to allow information on the health status of released people to be provided to the facility they are being released to.”

Avery said that Coverdale has stopped accepting new clients to its Caitlin’s Place facility until such health information is provided. “The safety of the residents currently living there as well as our staff are a priority,” said Avery.

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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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