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

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There are two cases of COVID-19 confirmed in Nova Scotia jails and prisoners in Burnside are on lockdown as the province’s “clunky” justice systems slows efforts to release prisoners en masse during the third wave.

As the Halifax Examiner reported earlier on Thursday:

… an employee at the Burnside Jail has tested positive for COVID, and as a result all prisoners are under lockdown. Prisoners are being tested today, and they’ll remain in lockdown until a negative test result comes back.

Nova Scotia Justice Department spokesperson Heather Fairbairn confirmed in an email to the Examiner on Thursday evening that there are in fact two active cases, but didn’t say in which facility or facilities:

There are currently two confirmed cases of COVID-19 associated with Nova Scotia’s provincial correctional facilities. Public health is engaged and the appropriate measures are being undertaken.

Despite months of calls from activists to prioritize prisoners and staff for vaccination, the province only started vaccinating prisoners this week — and only in one jail, Burnside.

“On Monday, May 3, those in custody at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility had the opportunity to receive the vaccine,” Fairbairn said.

While that facility is the largest, the province also has jails in Sydney, Pictou County, and Yarmouth.

“Plans are in the works for those in custody at other provincial facilities to have the opportunity to receive the vaccine in the coming days/weeks,” Fairbairn.

The Examiner asked what percentage of prisoners were vaccinated, but Fairbairn did not provide an answer.

Asked for any information on educational material provided to prisoners to encourage vaccine uptake, Fairbairn said, “Vaccine administrators review the information in the consent form prior to individuals receiving the vaccine.”

(Women’s Wellness Within chair Martha Paynter tweeted earlier Thursday that the organization “offered to facilitate education/workshops about vaccine safety” for people in Burnside, and received “No support for this from DoJ.” They even produced a video.)

Fairbairn said staff in provincial jails “would have received an invitation to schedule their vaccine appointment,” but did not answer a question asking whether staff were fully vaccinated.

During the first COVID-19 wave last spring, Nova Scotia avoided infection in jails by depopulating the facilities by 45%, dropping the prisoner population to 251. In the months since, that number crept up.

Even before the third wave, now much worse than the first by any metric, a group of advocates was calling on the province to again depopulate jails.

The Examiner asked Fairbairn for the current population numbers, whether the Justice Department has a target number of prisoners to be released now, where that would put the population number, and whether there’s a timeline for releases.

Fairbairn’s statement answered none of those questions:

We continue to manage admissions and releases as we have since March 2020 with eligible inmates considered for temporary absence / early release.  Correctional Services has a comprehensive COVID-19 prevention plan in place and we continue to work closely with Public Health to maintain a safe environment for persons in custody and staff in our facilities.

People working outside of government provided clearer answers, and while hopeful, they’re frustrated with the pace of depopulation.

Emma Halpern, executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia, is among a group of people working to get prisoners released.

“We have been part of a coordinated effort that has been challenging,” Halpern said in an interview Wednesday.

“But there is, I would say a commitment across the board to see folks get released, as many as possible, and a recognition that that is an imperative that we have upwards of about 350 or so folks incarcerated provincially right now, and that’s just a very dangerous thing, given what’s happening with COVID.”

Groups like the Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia and Coverdale Courtwork Society are “rallying together, pulling every resource we have, and getting out into the community to set up shelters and that are really about addressing the multiple needs that someone has, and not just a bed at night,” Halpern said.

For women and trans people, the Elizabeth Fry Society and Coverdale have a combined 18 beds in Holly House and Caitlan’s Place for people being released on strict conditions to serve out their sentences.

“Between the two, we unfortunately do not have the capacity to meet the need,” Coverdale executive director Ashley Avery said in an interview.

“And so that’s why we’ve come together once again in this sort of collaborative work to provide additional housing for people who are coming out that really has the expertise that we bring, which is understanding all of the different components of reintegration and making sure that all of those supports are wrapped around the folks who are coming out.”

Avery said there are currently 364 people in custody and the plan is to get that number down to between 240 and 275.

“We provide people with housing. We connect them to legal services, health services, mental health and addiction support cultural services, making sure that basic needs are met, getting people connected to income assistance and connected back into their, their family support and our circle of care.”

They also have hotel rooms booked to provide emergency supportive, bail and relief housing. And they’re working with the John Howard Society on housing men in hotels.

“We have already mobilized our hotel programs. We have 10 rooms for people who are coming out and three of those rooms are already occupied and the rest of them will be filled by next week,” Avery said.

Hotels aren’t ideal, Avery said, but they hope to transition released prisoners into more stable housing in the months to come.

Most people in jails — around 75% of the population — have not been convicted or sentenced. They’re on remand, awaiting trials, typically having been denied bail. The other 25% or so have been convicted and sentenced to less than two years in jail.

For those 25% of prisoners, Halpern said the release process is fairly straightforward.

“They are being looked at for temporary absences and those releases would have to happen by way of either a rehabilitative, a medical, or a humanitarian relief,” Halpern said.

“And we are seeing very fast work happening there, for example, I had a call yesterday about someone, and she’s already out today.”

Facilitating the release of a prisoner on remand is more complicated, requiring defence and Crown lawyers to agree on a release plan and get a judge to sign off.

“The best case scenario is that Crown and defence have worked with community partners who have come up with a really secure plan that addresses public safety concerns, and they agree that this plan is going to be the best option given the context in which we’re living around COVID, and then that goes before a judge and the judge, for the most part, just says, ‘Looks good,’ and then that person can get out. That’s the smoothest process,” Halpern said.

“The least smooth process is, if the Crown outright says no, then it has to go to a hearing. And that can be lengthy and it can take more time to get in front of the hearing.”

Provincial hearings, for people who haven’t already been denied bail, happen quickly, and Halpern and Avery both noted Chief Judge Pamela Williams has been an “incredible leader” on the issue, keeping provincial courts running to sign off on release plans and hold hearing. But hearings in the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia, typical for people already denied bail, take longer to schedule.

Making matters worse is the fact that the hearings are happening “by phone or by Zoom and it’s quite clunky,” Halpern said.

“I actually am seeing quite a lot of will to move to try to think differently and to try to address the harm of incarceration by getting people out. But our system is so archaic and intractable and clunky that it’s really difficult to have a nimble approach that’s really addressing the best interests of our society,” Halpern said.

“We’re working with an old system of courts, and Crowns … It’s going to take more than a couple of weeks to be able to shift it in the way that it needs to shift to truly address this pandemic, and the danger from this pandemic.”

The Examiner asked the Nova Scotia Public Prosecution Service, the Crowns, about their position on depopulating Nova Scotia’s jails:

  • In the public prosecution service’s view, how many prisoners are eligible for release?
  • What is the public prosecution service doing to expedite the bail process for prisoners awaiting trial?
  • How has COVID-19 changed the way Crowns approach the bail process?

Chris Hansen, spokesperson for the Nova Scotia Public Prosecution Service, replied in an email:

At the outset of the pandemic last spring the Crowns went back and had a re-look at those on remand in an effort to shrink the numbers in custody.  Initially, more than 100 people awaiting the outcome of their matter were released with financial obligation and strict conditions.  Since then, the Crowns have been very much alive to the need to keep remand numbers down balancing public safety considerations and the safety of jail populations.  They continue to incorporate this approach with every new case.

In any new case, if there is a need for a bail hearing, the matter of bail is dealt with almost immediately. That has always been the process.

Halpern and Avery are hopeful that the Crowns, and the rest of the justice system, will remain alive to that need after the current wave of COVID-19 has subsided.

“This has to be a learning that we’re taking with us into the future, and a really solid commitment that we’re taking this into the future because our most vulnerable citizens deserve this kind of support. And we can’t afford to forget what we’re learning right now,” Halpern said.

Avery hopes the system will learn that releasing people into homelessness, or another congregate setting like a homeless shelter “essentially seals people’s fate.”

“The first part of this is getting people out and the second piece is keeping them out,” Avery said.

“That’s sort of the shift that I’ve seen is really again just recognizing that releasing people into homelessness or into a homeless shelter is a mistake, and that there are organizations in this community that have the expertise to care for these people in a way that is gender informed and trauma informed and culturally responsive. And that’s how we set people up for success and that’s how we can address recidivism and address remand and address all of the issues that that we see within our criminal legal system.”

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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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