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

The Halifax Examiner is providing all COVID-19 coverage for free.

In response to a question from the Halifax Examiner, a spokesperson from the Nova Scotia Department of Justice has confirmed that a prisoner at the Burnside jail has tested positive for COVID-19. The department issued this statement to the Examiner:

We can confirm that one inmate has tested positive for COVID-19.

This individual has been in an isolated healthcare cell since admission to the facility, due to a pre-existing injury. As a result, this person has had minimal contact with staff and other inmates since they entered custody.  Our protocols for interacting with inmates in all facilities include enhanced use of personal protection equipment to prevent the spread of illness.

Correctional Services works directly with Nova Scotia Health Authority to ensure any inmate who requires medical attention gets the health services they need.  The affected inmate is receiving the appropriate health care for this situation, and they will continue to remain in healthcare cells until they are cleared by health officials.

Correctional Services has been working closely with NSHA under the direction of Dr. Lisa Barrett to ensure we continue to have robust plans in place to manage this specific incident of Covid-19, and to ensure we continue to take action to minimize the impact of Covid-19 on our staff and inmates.  The measures we have been taking, and will continue to take, include reducing the numbers of individuals in custody,  enhanced cleaning, screening upon admission by Correctional Services and NSHA staff, staff screening at the beginning of each shift, enhanced use of personal protective equipment, and daily screening questions and check-ins with inmates and staff with resources to assist in coping with the stress of the pandemic.

We spoke with a prisoner at the jail to get his understanding of events.

El Jones: We just heard today that there’s a case of COVID-19 in Burnside. How are you doing?

Prisoner: We just heard today as well. I’m doing as good as I guess I can be. I mean, obviously it’s very frustrating with everything that’s going on here.

So what’s going on? Can you give me the update?

We heard about the case today. The case, I guess, was somebody in health seg. They were in here for a week and they weren’t tested upon admission, and I don’t know, they must have been incubating the virus upon coming in and not showing any symptoms at first. They put him in health seg because he had, I was told, a [previous injury, detail of injury redacted for privacy] and they had him on the short side of health seg which is four cells in a row. They’re like normal cells. Kind of normal cells, but a bit bigger without the same kind of shelving.

I heard they moved him to the hospital but I don’t know that for sure. That’s just something I heard. Maybe they isolated him into one of the specific closeted cells. There’s two of them that we have in the building. Or at least on this side of the building that I know of.

Can you describe that to me? What do you mean by a health care cell?

There’s a health care unit, right? There’s 12 cells in health care. What there is, is like an office room which has a shower — like one room separate shower — and one door going towards [the actual medical] health care. And then two separate doors, one going to the short side of health seg which is a row of four cells. And they’re just very similar to these cells, like at least how the doors are. They’re a tiny bit bigger. And then there’s another door off the office room that has six cells. And then off the office room again, there’s two singular cells that are closeted completely. So, you’ve got to walk into one door to get to that cell. I would expect if he’s still here that he would have got moved into one of those cells. But I had thought they said he got moved to the hospital. But again, I don’t know.

So how isolated is health seg from the rest of the jail?

What they do, is they do inspection here every day. So when he was on the short side [before he was diagnosed], what would have happened was a couple of captains — two, maybe three captains — walks along the whole building, starting at North One, North Two, North Three, North Four [different ranges in the jail], and then they go to health seg and seg. Or vice versa. So they basically walk through every single occupied cell. And sometimes they’ll go in there and touch a couple things, move things around, make sure that everything’s in order, ask us to move this or move that if you really want to inspect a cell. And that way you’re potentially contaminating each and every single cell.

Have you ever been in health seg? What’s it like? What does it mean to be in isolation? Do they have a TV? What are they doing all day?

Yes, I have. I heard now they may have one or two TVs that are on wheels, but they would be specific for, say, the long side. They’re not there for the singular closeted cells.

So what does it feel like to be in a health care cell?

Oh, it can be absolutely terrible. Especially when you’re in that singular closeted cell, you’re completely segregated from everybody. If you’re there, you’re also — especially under COVID, and I know because I’ve been asking these things — they have no way to then give you a cordless phone. Or any way to shower. How do you do this?

My issue right now is the fact that this guy’s been here for almost a week, and now they say —  if it was actually just today they knew or yesterday — that he was diagnosed. So he would have been going to the shower. And they would have been coming in and doing inspection.

They said he was isolated the whole time he was there. Is that not accurate?

Not like that, no. Yeah, he would be isolated to an extent. But again, it’s not like he was totally separate. He would be using shared showers and stuff like that.

When did they tell you he had COVID?

This morning. They came around with an update sheet that said we have tested 17 people so far, and 16 have come back negative. Confirming, obviously, there was one person who tested positive.

How did you feel when you saw that?

It’s sickening, really. Especially when you get a bit more information and you hear this guy’s been here for a week, and come in contact with multiple different people. There’s people saying, yeah, I’ve seen him. I have heard that.

What they claim is always going to be a little bit better than what it really is.

How are people reacting now that they know there’s COVID in the facility?

It’s mixed. Some people are quiet, some people are irrationally thinking about it, but in general there’s an idea that everyone feels sick to some extent. I can’t imagine anybody to not feel that way.

Did they offer you anything else when they told you? Like counselling? Or they just gave you a sheet?

Yeah, that’s basically it. They do try to send a couple people in. The social workers are here a little more often. But ultimately they’re very very limited in what they can do, because all they can do is come to the range.

Have they offered you masks?

No. No. No. Not that. No. They all wear masks, but again, it’s the same mask they wear the whole entire shift. But I guess that’s the same at hospitals, so, you know, can’t really complain too much about that.

I suggested — it probably would have been a decent idea to let us make our own, or even if it came down to donating some at some point.

Did you ask for that and they said no?

I did mention it, and I’ve been asking specifically to try to get some meetings, but that just gets pushed off. We’ve been asking for it for the past month. Longer than a month, but specifically pushing hard the past month. But it keeps getting pushed off and off. I understand everyone’s busy, everyone’s a little frantic, and nobody knows what to really say or do, so it’s probably tricky for them.

A lot of people are decent, you know, I don’t want to paint everybody with a bad brush, like all these people are bad, because I don’t agree with that. It’s just it’s not working properly, that’s for sure.

What are the staff saying?

Most of the officers are the ones we have to deal with. And, we can sit here and I try to bring anything I feel or think to the table or just within conversation. I almost never get anybody who disagrees with what I have to say.

It’s their safety too. Their family’s safety. Their community’s safety.

Anything else?

Sometimes it does feel – nobody knows what’s going on beneath the surface, or behind closed doors. People are trying for us, but it’s hard to always accept that, especially when we’re here being denied bail hearings and access to the courts.

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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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