Photo: Halifax Examiner

On Wednesday morning, I attended the Public Accounts committee meeting at Province House. Deputy Minister of Justice Karen Hudson, Chris Collett Executive Director of Correctional Services, and provincial Director of Correctional Services Sean Kelly were answering questions about the Auditor General report from May, 2018.

Among other concerns, the report revealed jails were not following the rules around solitary confinement, and that staff lacked training in mental health and suicide prevention. 

Here are some of the most significant moments from this morning’s testimony:

Karen Hudson refuses to answer questions about the death of Clayton Cromwell

Earlier in the testimony when addressing the reporting of incidents, Sean Kelly stated that Nova Scotia has “the most transparent reporting of any institution” in the country. However, when NDP Justice Critic Claudia Chender asked about the 2014 death of Clayton Cromwell, Hudson refused to answer, citing “privacy issues.” Hudson also argued that the mandate of the committee is to “examine efficiency and effectiveness” and not to address “individual cases.” Hudson also cited the lawsuit against the province.

Consistently during the advocacy for Abdoul Abdi, when we attempted to get politicians to address his case, they responded that it would violate his privacy to speak about the case, as though their failures in accountability were simply to protect him. Similarly, it’s hard to think the privacy of Cromwell’s family is of concern when they have been fighting for four years for the report to be released. 

I would argue that reports of disabled emergency intercoms go beyond an individual case and speak to the efficiency of the institution in responding to urgent health crises.

Prisoners say: Prisoners report that on the mens’ side in Burnside, only the cells for disabled prisoners now have intercoms, and the rest have no buzzers at all.

Remand, Weekends, and Intermittent Sentences

According to the testimony by management, last week 80 per cent of prisoners in Burnside were on remand last week — that is, four out of every five prisoners were there awaiting trial, not as part of a sentence for a conviction. At any time, the anywhere from 55 to 80 per cent of prisoners at Burnside are on remand.

Nova Scotia has about two times as many people serving intermittent (weekend) sentences than other provinces.

PC MLA Barbara Adams, asking about intermittent sentences, insisted that she had been told by police that “at least” one person didn’t have to go to his weekends because the jail was overcrowded. He was “free to sit home to drink and do drugs.”

Collett responded, “We never turn anyone away. Our doors are always open.”

Prisoners Say:A prisoner who served weekends and couldn’t access menstrual products during that time comments, “Ugh, and she’s my MLA.”

No mention of strip searches on the men’s side for methadone patients

Sean Kelly responded to a question from PC MLA Chris D’Entremont about methadone in the facility by describing the procedures the institution has to monitor prisoners. According to Kelly, about 35 prisoners receive methadone in Burnside.

Left out of the description of policy was the potentially illegal practice of strip searching prisoners who receive methadone in the facility.

How to get information? FOIPOP

Despite repeated assurances of the importance of transparency and accountability, and the changes made since the report, in response to a question by a PC MLA about whether the risk assessment of direct supervision promised in July is complete, Chris Collett answered that if the committee wanted a copy, they would have to  file a request under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy (FOIPOP) Act.

Collett argued that since the report contains information about potential risks, it would be a “breach of security” to make it public. The same arguments about “law enforcement safety” were made by Hudson to defend the redactions in the report on Clayton Cromwell.

Critics were right all along

I’ve been writing about prisons for a few years, and every time an issue is raised, we are always assured at the time that there is no problem, that prisoners are not accurate in their criticisms, and that the system is working.

In speaking of the improvements made in policies in the jail, Hudson celebrated that they are now in 100 per cent compliance in three institutions with the rules around solitary confinement. She reported that this is up from 24 per cent compliance two years ago.

Hudson wanted us to celebrate the improvements; I am shocked that in 2016 compliance was so poor. I wonder what issues that we are being told we are wrong about now will be similarly improved two years from now.

New Solitary Confinement, Same as the Old

The officials attempted to give the impression that improvements are being made to “close confinement.” However, Hudson and Collett acknowledged to media that the proposed changes only apply to people in administrative segregation, which affects less than two per cent of the population, or around 20 people.

Hudson touted plans for a new “intervention unit” where prisoners from around the province in administrative confinement (people not put in segregation for disciplinary reasons, but for reasons for safety, etc.) would be placed in a central unit where they would have time out of their cells, programs, a teacher specifically for that unit, etc.

However, as current staffing issues at the jail indicate, if there are no staff present, then prisoners remain in their cells. Burnside has been repeatedly locked down since the strike as work refusals and staffing shortages continue.

I would also point out that Joshua Evans died while on a supposed mental health range. Despite the alleged increased contact with staff and intensive supervision, Evans was not checked on every 15 minutes as is the protocol with suicidal prisoners. Instead, staff only made rounds every half hour.

Like the proposed federal legislation, the suggested changes to segregation provincially are largely about renaming the practice and shuffling people around, not elimination.

Hudson responded, “I do not think this is time to have an external review” to questions by Chender addressing the need to examine eliminating the practice of solitary confinement altogether. Instead, Hudson touted internal meetings and reviews as “improvements.”

According to Hudson, the average stay in segregation is now 4.65 days, down from an average of 5.5 days.

Responding to the Strike

Although officials have yet to respond to the prisoners about their demands, and have transferred  prisoners they suspect of being active in the strike, Collett responded to the committee about some of the demands raised in the peaceful protest.

Collett claimed that the exercise equipment has arrived, but is delayed as each new unit has its own yard. The equipment will allegedly be installed in the coming months.

Burnside is planning on bringing in Dr. Robert Strang to develop addiction programming.

Collett argued that the food follows the Canada Food Guide and that they have added some “healthier” snacks “like protein bars” to the canteen (the healthiness of protein bars is controversial).

They are considering contact visits, particularly now that there are body scanners installed. They no longer require pregnant women to go to their prenatal appointments wearing bright orange institutional clothing.

They also claimed they now have an expanded library, with all kinds of new books, including a number of books on trades such as plumbing. However, they do not offer any plumbing courses.

Prisoners say: “On our range theres a bookshelf but there’s only 10-15 books on the bookshelf, and it’s books we brought over with us.”

Limits on Limitless

The Limitless program, a partnership with NSCC, was touted throughout the testimony as a successful initiative. Forty students have reportedly taken math and communication courses, with 10 of those students enrolling in NSCC in September.

Sources who worked close to the program, however, including members of the African Nova Scotian community, argue that while the program was developed to prioritize African Nova Scotians who consistently face less access to programming due to systemic racism, few if any African Nova Scotian students have been accepted into the program.

Staff Training

There was a great deal of discussion about when staff would be completed training. The timeline for mental health training has been accelerated and the majority of staff will be trained by the beginning of 2019.

One-hundred-and-eighty-nine staff have received recertification training this year.

The mental illness training that was in place was suspended because it required the services of a psychologist to train the staff. Apparently this was too “taxing” on the psychologist.

The emphasis on “accelerated” training in mental health perhaps obscures the reality that the majority of staff have been untrained for a number of years. Joshua Evans died by suicide in the facility in September.

Human Rights Oversight

Management claimed that they are now working with the Human Rights Commission who are providing oversight visits every month.

Prisoners say:“The human rights people don’t talk to us, they walk through with management.” Prisoners also say that when the human rights people visit the facility, the prisoners are asked by management if they have any problems in front of the whole range. “How are you supposed to complain about someone beating you up or stealing your food or anything like that in front of everyone? You can’t talk to them or you’ll be a rat.”

Other quick facts

• It costs $250 a day to house a prisoner in Nova Scotia.

• There were 615 violent incidents during the 600-day period of the audit.

• There are around 500 staff employed in correctional facilities in the province. There are around 475-500 prisoners; 30-35 of those are women on any given day.

• Forty-eight per cent of male prisoners have a substance abuse problem.

An earlier version of this article misspelled Chris Collett’s name.

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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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