On Thursday, 17 days into the protest at Burnside, Minister of Justice Mark Furey released an op-ed piece publicly addressing the issues raised by the prisoners for the first time. Unfortunately, prisoners cannot access his comments, and there seem to be no plans to circulate his piece in the facility so they can read and respond to his arguments.

I read Minister Furey’s comments to a striking prisoner and asked him for his thoughts. Here are his responses.

Minister Furey: Over the last few weeks, attention has been focused on Nova Scotia’s largest correctional facility, the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Burnside.

How we treat Nova Scotians who are incarcerated in our jails deserves discussion and debate. It is also important that the work being done and investments being made to enhance and improve our correctional facilities is highlighted to inform that discussion.

In 2018 this has included:
• introduction of direct supervision — already having a positive impact within the facility.

Striking Prisoner: No. It’s not at all. Even the staff will agree with me on that one.

Furey: Direct supervision allows for early intervention as our staff are there to assess and respond to incidents before they escalate. It provides a safer environment for both our staff and inmates

Prisoner: No. Well, it may provide a safe environment, I guess. I mean, I couldn’t say it’s a dangerous environment, but what I would say is: the staff don’t agree with it, they don’t want to be here, there are safety issues. They said that themselves.

The work refusal will show that the staff don’t agree that this is a better environment, that this a “highlight.” Their work refusal is based on danger, safety and security issues, and not being able to hear their radios. They refused to work the dayroom because of those three things.

• first inmate services fair, which gave more than 20 community agencies and government departments an opportunity to connect with inmates on a wide range of rehabilitation and community supports.

Prisoner: First services fair? But I thought when our demands came out they said they had all these programs. So now they only had one job fair, for the first time this year? So which is it?

• installation of body scanners which will significantly reduce incidents of contraband entering each of our four adult facilities

Prisoner: When rehabilitation should be the main focus of a correctional facility, they’re focused on security. Contraband is more important than families reuniting with their kids.

• improved training and the recruiting of more Indigenous and African Nova Scotians correctional officers to be more reflective of our communities

Prisoner: Fuck off. Like holy fuck man. [Laughter]

Like what, just because one guy came back from leave the other day? Who else? There’s an African guy here, so that’s it. They hired one black guy. And they got one captain just because of a guard complaining about racism in the paper? Man, these guys are frigging crazy.

Furey: We know that if we do not help address the root causes of criminal behaviour such as substance abuse, lack of education, mental health and anger, the cycle of violence and conflict with the law will continue. Our correctional staff work hard every day to ensure we keep our inmates safe and support them to make positive changes in their lives. They have a tough job and play a critical role in our operations.

Prisoner: Uh, the staff feel as if they’re inmates too because they don’t know anything half the time. Whenever we have questions they’re like, “I don’t know, this place is fucked.” They literally feel like inmates. That’s what they say.

Furey: Many offenders come from vulnerable environments and we need to be responsive to their lived experiences. Many are on remand waiting trial and have not been convicted of a crime. And some pose the highest risk, have the highest needs and are among the most dangerous in the province.

Prisoner: Well then, why don’t you have any frigging rehabilitation programs? Why don’t you have Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous or something for people to do all day rather than being locked in a cell for the last seven days on 23-hour lockdown?

Furey: Many offenders come from vulnerable environments and we need to be responsive to their lived experiences. Many are on remand waiting trial and have not been convicted of a crime.

Prisoner: And are being treated as if they’re super max inmates. That’s what that sentence should say.

Furey: And some pose the highest risk, have the highest needs and are among the most dangerous in the province.

Prisoner: So we don’t give them any programs before we release them. Great. 

Furey: I think everyone can appreciate that our correctional facilities can be challenging places to live and work.

Prisoner: Why is this [Burnside] the only facility with all the issues? Why is it the only facility with the low quality of food? Why it is the only facility with no programs whatsoever? If we have the largest population of all the counties in the province, why don’t we have the most programs? Why don’t we have the best food? Why don’t we have more extracurricular things to do?

Furey: Every inmate deserves respect and their human rights protected. And we are doing that. They are in custody because they have been charged criminally and the community does not accept the behaviour.

Prisoner: Oh, wow. But I thought you just said I was innocent until proven guilty.

Furey: Looking forward, we remain focused on inmate programming and training. Program Officer positions have been created and recruited to ensure the continuous facilitation of inmate programming. This fall, these officers will deliver evidence-based programs in areas of addictions, emotional management and trauma consistent with case management practices.

Prisoner: I would like to ask him: like, do you want a cookie? Do you want a frigging smiley face sticker? This place has been open for 18 years and now you’re finally getting programs?

What happened to all the programs they supposedly had when the statement came out?

Furey: Additionally, we are developing incentive-based programs for inmates

Prisoner: So basically you gotta tell on someone to get something. That you should probably have anyway.

Furey: as well as having conversations regarding the formation of an inmate committee at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility.

Prisoner: Which has been going on since 2013. I’m a witness to that. Every time the conversation comes up and they say, “oh, who wants to be head of the inmate committee on this range?” Somebody says, “I do!” and they’re shipped out the same fucking day.

Furey: We continue to work closely with the NSGEU to support our staff and we have excellent relationships with community partners, like Elizabeth Fry, to support people in our custody and for those who are returning to the community. We want to help inmates get back on track so that they transition from custody safely back into the community.

Prisoner: What do you do to help inmates? Like please — that’s just, period. What do you do to help inmates?

Furey: With respect to correctional services in the province, my job as minister is clear: keep inmates safe and healthy and provide them with the tools to be successful when they return to our communities, many times under the supervision of our community offices; keep our correctional officers and other jail staff safe and well equipped to do their jobs, and above all, keep the public safe.

Prisoner: Well, now that he said he gives me the tools to reintegrate — I’ve seen the tool belt, but there doesn’t seem to be any tools in there. Where are the tools?

Minister Furey was also questioned by members of the media. The transcript of his comments to the media is from Michael Tutton with the Canadian Press. 

I asked the striking prisoner to respond to these comments.

Question: Are you planning any specific actions in response to the 10 demands?

Furey: We’ve had ongoing dialogue within our Correctional facilities, our labour leaders and the NSGEU who represent workers. We have a strong relationship in that environment that continue to review most and all of those concerns that come forward. I’m quite confident that the most recent circumstances that have been brought to our attention continue to have been addressed within that environment.

Prisoner: I would say that without knowing what the so-called inmates, the people incarcerated here need, without addressing us to see what is needed, how can you know?

Question: Are you asking for a higher budget to address some of these requests?

Furey: Collectively within the D of J looking around the department around budget pressures. We are coming into the fall session. We will commence budget discussions at treasury board and I’ll have the opportunity at that time to advance issues within the department of justice.

We haven’t had those discussions yet. We’ll engage in those discussions over the next couple of weeks leading into the budget process.

Prisoner: They spent $7 million renovating the place, and we can’t get a towel. 

Question: What will come of the protest?

Furey: It’s important we have these discussions and ensure the rights of those incarcerated in our facility is respected.

I think it’s generated some very good discussion and my experience with my colleague in Corrections is we’ve seen some good outcomes from the discussions, so I’m anticipating the opportunities present themselves to make change where change is necessary and where change doesn’t impact the level of security and public safety that’s required in those environments.

Absolutely. Very objective approach to what we’re seeing and what we’re hearing.

Prisoner: I would say, these past weeks where all this discussion and all this stuff has been getting some public attention, this is just now breaking the surface. All these same things that are being asked for now have been asked for since this place has been open. I’m confident in vouching for that. This place has been open for 18 years!

Furey: One of the things we’ve just undertaken is a significant renovation to introduce and implement the direct supervision model. Part of that is an enhanced air exchange system. We had a very abnormal summer of extreme heat. We were all impacted by that. The renovations with the direct supervision will address the air circulation issues that have been brought to our attention.

Prisoner: Yeah they have. Well, I don’t know. Maybe. I don’t see a new air conditioner thing like they’ve got in Pictou, but it’s just a bigger area so it’s more air circulation. Which is good.

Statement from the Nova Scotia Health Authority (Kristen Lipscombe):

Healthcare services in correctional facilities should be at the same standard/level as those services that are available in the community.

We will continue to monitor and respond to  feedback  we receive from individuals who are incarcerated . We will also continue to monitor our wait times and adjust as necessary with changes to an individual’s health status while they are incarcerated.

Nova Scotia Health Authority (NSHA) aims to provide high-quality health care for everyone in our province, including incarcerated individuals.

NSHA nurses deliver medications to offenders up to four times daily, just as they would in any hospital setting across the province. Delays can occur occasionally due to the availability of correctional officers, who must be present with nurses at all times during any interventions with offenders.

Prisoners face the same wait times as other community members. Diagnostic tests such as X-rays and MRIS, as well as specialist appointments, are triaged in the same manner they are in hospitals. Again, delays can occur due to the availability of correctional officers, who must escort offenders to all of their outside appointments.

NSHA also provides clinics with medical doctors and mental health professionals twice weekly for offenders on site at Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility. Patients are triaged from most urgent to least urgent for appointments with follow-up sessions held in-house at the correctional facility as necessary.

Minister FureyThere is a formula and a model that identifies staffing needs within our correctional facilities. One of the most important elements of the movement of a prisoner for health care is to provide that health care but also to ensure and maintain the safety of those in the workplace, and our health care workers in that environment are part of that need and there would be times where the transfer of an inmate for health care needs requires the presence of a guard, and at the first opportunity when a guard is available we would facilitate that transfer to ensure the safety of all involved remains paramount.

Prisoner: Yeah, people get their medication that they’re prescribed, and there are serious delays at times. But when it comes to people trying to get X-rays for broken legs or sprained ankles, they’re being denied X-rays. Anything that has to take place outside the institution where they to give a temporary absence, they’re just denying guys that.

Minister Furey: There are other issues that are frequent … One of the things that was brought forward I believe was around the quality of the food. The facility follows the Canada Food Guide. We’re providing nutritional meals in that environment. No different than what the food guide would suggest.

It’s an ongoing work environment where we continue to respond to those issues as they arise.

Prisoner: The food guide? Well how come in every other county the quality of food is better? Every single other county. Like if you look at the pork here, and the pork in any of the three other counties, you would not eat this one. You would eat this one last. And when you got to it, you would probably give it to your dog to eat. That’s a fact. Every single tray here is worse than the worst tray in other counties. The food here is terrible.

Minister Furey: So, there’s a security discussion around clothing. There is a micro economy within the facility. The clothing provided serves a purpose that enhances the safety of all involved, both inmates and the staff who work in the environment. Those are the kinds of things that are in important, and we will continue to support the present distribution of clothing as the policy is laid out at the present time.

Those are always discussions that are important. The body scanners certainly enhance the level of safety. I know with the objectivity of those leading corrections that they see these as new challenges but they see them as opportunities with the equipment that’s available and the opportunity to revisit that policy and look at what family visits may look like going forward is a real discussion.

Prisoner: Giving people clothing is a safety issue?

They should provide people with clothes. You’ve got people living on a dayroom with the clothes that they give them at A&D, which is where they assess you — they’re coming up with the clothes they give them to put on, and that’s it. They don’t get a bag of clothes for days. They don’t get towels or shoes for days. So if you can’t provide this stuff, why not let people wear the stuff that they come to the jail with. You know? Like let them wear their shoes or their clothes they have on. You can’t even provide that.

Furey: The opportunity to revisit the policy and determine what family visits may look like going forward is a real discussion.

Prisoner: They may. Oh. I guess.

El Jones: Do you have anything you would like to say to Minister Furey?

Prisoner: I would like to say, it’s easy to sit back and say what the facility is doing when you’re on the outside looking in, I mean everyone knows, even common sense knows that this place does not have transparency that it should have. But if you’re the outside, and you’re the justice minister of the department, and you’re sitting somewhere in Ottawa, and you get on the phone with the deputy superintendent and they say all these things are being provided, then I guess it’s being provided.

But the guys that are here, going through this, even the staff that are here on the day rooms, we can tell you everything that’s been going on in here. But they just speak to the higher up people that are going to do whatever they have to do to keep things the way they are.

I think he should get in here and meet with the staff, because I know he won’t have any meeting with us. Our voices are not going to go as far. Maybe he could but that’s kind of a long shot. I think the better thing to ask for is to talk to the staff who have been working in this building for a few years and see what their concerns are. And then give a statement on what things are going to happen.

Slavery was accepted for a long time. And everyone was just painting it with the same brush, saying, “Oh no, everything’s fine, this is just the way of the world.” And so incarceration, this is just the way of the world right now. What we’re going through is — you’ve got the overseers and the slave masters claiming, “No, my plantation’s being run smoothly.” I mean they’re our slaves, we’re not killing them, we’re not drugging them up, we’re making sure they’re fed, we’re making sure they’re clothed, we’re taking care of their children, we’re making sure they integrate properly with programs. No you’re not. You’re not doing none of that shit.

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. Great to hear this voice from the inside, and great that El Jones is so committed to making such voices heard. Such critical journalism. It really is astonishing that Furey can get away with such idiotic platitudes given the grim realities of NS prison conditions. He can’t even keep his own story straight: first he says, correctly, that “many” of the inmates “are on remand awaiting trial and have not been convicted of a crime.” Then he says “Every inmate deserves respect and their human rights protected….They are in custody *because they have been charged criminally and the community does not accept the behaviour*.”

    Well, which is it Mark? This kind of glib and self-contradictory blather in response to a serious human rights crisis in Nova Scotia prisons is a mirror image of the way the McNeil government has responded to the crisis – particularly the staffing crisis – in long term care facilities. Lip service to their “commitment” to high standard of care, and a simultaneous refusal to do anything to ameliorate conditions that expose this alleged commitment as a joke. It has been said that a civilization is measured by how it treats its most vulnerable members. Considering the conditions in its prisons and elderly care facilities, Premier McNeil seems determined to leave a legacy of one of the most *un*civilized governments this province has ever seen.