A photo of the Nova Scotia Youth Centre in Waterville. The building is white with green trim. A few trees are planted out front.
The Nova Scotia Youth Training Centre in Waterville.

Names in this story have been changed for confidentiality. This article contains discussion of childhood sexual abuse.

From the time I began working with incarcerated men in Nova Scotia, I heard stories about abuse at the “Youth Training Centre” for supposed young offenders in Waterville.

In phone calls and letters, as we built trust together, men in institutions across the country, from provincial jail to maximum security prisons would open up to me — so often hesitantly — about what they had experienced as youth. The shame and confusion was palpable. Many of the men could hardly name what had happened to them. Many were hiding it out of fear of being thought less manly, or disgusting, or weak.

They didn’t say what happened when documents listed them as habitual offenders, or when they were asked during sentencing reports, or when asked to account for themselves at parole. They just kept silent. For years and years they held it in, sometimes not even understanding that what they had experienced was abuse and not a fault in themselves.

It is no coincidence that the men I work with were incarcerated as adults.

We have long known about the “sexual abuse to prison pipeline” for women. A 2015 study reported that “close to 70% of federally sentenced women have histories of sexual abuse, while 86% report to have experienced physical abuse at some point in their lives. For Indigenous women, non-binary, trans, or two-spirit people, this reality of violent victimization is exacerbated. CSC’s own research revealed that nearly all Indigenous women serving federal sentences (as many as 91%) have experienced physical or sexual abuse.”

Less talked about and studied is the number of incarcerated men who are also victims of sexual violence. And for many of these men, this abuse took place in institutional settings.

As Examiner contributor Stephen Kimber writes, “In 1995, 24 years after those initial reports, an official inquiry documented 89 cases of abuse at provincial institutions for children in trouble with the law, 69 of them at the Nova Scotia School for Boys in Shelburne.”

These patterns of abuse in institutions — youth jails, group homes, locked treatment facilities — are widespread, and they are common among adults who end up in prison.

There is a direct connection between childhood sexual abuse, trauma, and incarceration. Those doing time now who were abused then are at least partially behind bars because of what was done to them when they were children.

These men, victims of abuse and the indifference to that abuse by the people charged both with punishing and protecting them, are still living their lives inside carceral institutions under the control of the same system that allowed them to be abused. Many are doing hard time in high-security institutions, labeled the worst of offenders.

I remember hearing about how one of Ashley Smith‘s nephews was in jail when he learned of her death. To this day the cell they moved him to when they could not contain his rage and grief — a cell armoured and reinforced against him — is known by men incarcerated in the jail by his name.

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

To have to speak about the sexual abuse you lived through in a youth institution while serving time is its own kind of hell. To have to speak to the police, and then go back to your cell under the eyes of the whole range, and to be unable to show any pain in an environment where weakness can make you prey yet again is another unhealed wound. To live still under the control of the same system that abused you is an extreme form of powerlessness.

And, as these survivors of abuse have discovered, they cannot even get counselling to cope with the effects.

•          •           •

From the time he was 10 years old, Martin was living on the streets. Sometimes he stayed with friends and family, bouncing around from couch to spare room to foster home and back. Often as a child and teen, he slept outside the library on Spring Garden Road. Survival meant dealing drugs and fighting to stay alive.

When he was sentenced to Waterville, he was a child with no home, no food, and no adults in his life. He discovered working out, and learning how to use the weights gave him a sense of power and control over his own body that he never had as a child in the system. That was, until he met the swimming instructor.

Martin told me years ago about boys in Waterville being coerced to watch pornography with the instructor; about the instructor lining the children up naked and commenting on their genitals; about unwanted, non-consensual touching and sexual comments; about being told that this is what men do together normally and only a boy with something wrong with him — like being gay — would be disturbed.

Martin is now one of the men who are suing the province for abuse they say they suffered at the hands of the swim instructor at Waterville. The accusations in the lawsuit have not been tested in court.

Like the other boys, Martin felt shame and confusion: Had he wanted it? Had he been excited? Why hadn’t he spoken up? What was wrong with him?

Like the other boys, Martin tried to put it out of his head. And like so many other boys, Martin continued to cycle through the criminal justice system as an adult.

Unlike others, Martin has been able to speak out about his experiences. For many others, even with a pending lawsuit and criminal investigation, they still cannot name what happened or bring themselves to remember.

Over the jail phone, Martin tells me:

We were only young. A lot of people didn’t have substance abuse issues at the time when they first went in. But a lot of people developed these issues as coping mechanisms to forget some of the things that actually happened to them while they were incarcerated and were supposed to be under the care of these people who were predators.

Martin isn’t even the only man on his range (prison block) who was abused. But, he says, many still struggle with speaking about the abuse.

When it comes down to it, not a lot of people are going to be as vocal as I am. People don’t want to have to talk to the police about it, they don’t want to go to court about it, they don’t want to deal with that side of it. So a lot of people may not qualify for counselling because they don’t want to tell their story. It stirs up stuff that they don’t want to think about.

Martin says that for for years, victims weren’t even aware that their abuser was still alive.

“There was a rumour that he killed himself,” Martin tells me. Martin isn’t surprised that it has taken so long for an investigation; as he says, the people in power hold all the cards, and the victims, now seen as criminals, have no power at all. Who would even believe them?

Even if they convict, I just want to see what’s going to happen. I’m just surprised he’s alive. Everybody thought he was dead.

I just want to see how it plays out. There’s a long history of white males that are supposed to be upstanding members of society that are predators and are only getting a slap on the wrist. Things are changing a little bit now — but it seems to depend on who they know and who they are. If they know somebody and they are somebody then it isn’t the same. They’re not treated the same as us. 

Martin spoke with the RCMP when they came to the jail to interview him.

That was hard. Imagine sitting in a room in the place you are incarcerated, speaking to the police who have spent your entire life surveilling, arresting, and charging you. After the interview, Martin was asked if he would like counselling. He agreed, and a couple of weeks later he was informed that $2,000 was available for him from Victim Services.

But how is he supposed to get counselling? There is, he says, only one psychiatrist at the jail, and mainly all the psychiatrist does is prescribe medication. With COVID, programs were cut, but even before that mental health treatment is not readily available. And there is no culturally appropriate option for African Nova Scotian men. Martin says this is part of a broader neglect of people who are incarcerated:

Just because we’re in here, we’re incarcerated, doesn’t mean that society should forget about us. It doesn’t mean that we’re not suffering from things, too. A lot of programs and a lot of things have been cut due to COVID, but even before that there weren’t a lot of safeguards or anything to help anybody in this kind of situation. So something needs to be done to make sure that the people who need mental health who don’t necessarily fit the criteria to be over on the forensics side can still get the care they need while incarcerated.

It’s one thing to have the funding for the help, but it’s another thing to actually get it based on all the restrictions. This is like a super max anyway, and then there’s COVID, which gives them even more excuse to keep us locked down.

Martin knows he needs help. He can see how his experiences as a child led to where he is today. And after he talked to the police, he knew he was in a bad place and needed to be able to speak with somebody. But so far, there is nobody.

So Martin called me. Not so that I would write an article, not even to complain; Martin just wanted to have somebody to help him get the pain out of his head.

And even that call, like all calls from jail, was recorded and monitored. Even then, he had no guarantee of privacy or space to deal with what he went through.

And while he sits in jail with no one to listen, and nobody to help him heal, the justice system continues to move against him. He can’t help but notice the difference.

The people that were holding us accountable when we were youth aren’t being accountable. For the people that were in charge of our incarceration, the wheels of justice are moving slow when they have to take accountability for their actions.

And how do you really hold somebody accountable for taking your childhood?

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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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  1. Yeah, you are absolutely right. My buddies and I who are also in this class action suit experienced this too. I’m not embarrassed or ashamed of it because it wasn’t my fault. I’m ashamed of our government that they knew this was going on and did nothing about it. Almost all my friends have died, who have also experienced this. So, you are not alone. That sicko will end up alone like he should be. Keep your head up, man.

  2. Really powerful stuff here from El. Thanks El, for raising up these issues, it’s really important work.