Photo: Halifax Examiner

More than half of the prisoners at the Burnside jail have had COVID-19, and the outbreak isn’t over.

“As of Jan. 13, the cumulative case count involving persons in custody at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility is 128,” Justice Department spokesperson Heather Fairbairn told the Halifax Examiner in an email Thursday.

The prison population was 230 last week after three people were let out early. At that time, the active case count was 82.

“As of today, there are 42 active cases among those currently in custody at the facility,” Fairbairn said Thursday. “None are in hospital and there are no cases in the women’s unit.”

As of Tuesday, Fairbairn said there were 37 active cases, so the numbers are climbing again.

The Examiner asked Fairbairn how long prisoners are isolated before being deemed recovered.

“Healthcare in the facility is administered by Nova Scotia Health,” Fairbairn said. “When a person is considered to be no-longer infectious is determined by NSH on a case-by-case basis.”

El Jones reported on the situation at the jail earlier this week, writing that 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.

As Jones reported, the vaccination rate among men in the jail is estimated at about 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.

In the federal prisons in Nova Scotia, active cases are down to a total of five as of Wednesday — three in Nova Institution for Women and two in Springhill Institution. Unlike the province, Correctional Service of Canada publicly reports those cases.

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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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