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

A former correctional officer who worked at Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility (the Burnside jail) is concerned that the lack of attention to conditions in the jail will lead to violence and to people getting hurt.

The former officer contacted the Halifax Examiner and spoke about his experience working at the jail on the condition of anonymity because he fears for his safety and health. His views reflect opinions we’ve heard from several other former and current guards who spoke off the record or on background.

“I know the inhumane conditions will continue at Burnside if we can’t get a spotlight directly into it,” says the former correctional officer.

“There will be more bloodshed, there will be more punishment and retribution. There will be an overwhelming loss of humanity for anyone near that place.”

He alleges that the rights of both guards and prisoners are routinely violated.

Among the most serious of his allegations is the overuse of strip searches in the facility. According to the officer, when a dayroom is searched, correctional officers were required to strip search one-third of the prisoners whether the prisoners were suspected of any violations or contraband. When correctional officers objected to this policy, pointing out that it was in direct contravention of both the Correctional Services Act and the Charter of Rights, concerns were dismissed as “siding with the inmates.”

He describes the number of strip searches being conducted within the facility as “shocking.” Along with the policy of random strip searches, correctional officers report that management required staff to check the inside of the mouth of everyone who received medication. Concerns about this practice violating the Correctional Services Act and Charter of Rights were ignored, and officers who objected were advised to not give out medication rather than changing the policy.

Male prisoners who are on the methadone program are also subjected to daily strip searches after they receive their medication. While the Elizabeth Fry Society intervened to prevent the women from undergoing searches, the men are still forced to undergo a “humiliating” strip search to access treatment, says the former correctional officer.

Lawyer Shane Martinez, whose practice includes prison law, suggests that the searches potentially violate sections seven and eight of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Section 62 of the Correctional Services Act suggests that searches may be conducted when a guard suspects “on reasonable grounds” that there may be contraband or evidence related to the commission of an offence. Policies that set quotas for searches whether or not there is any suspicion would seem to be in violation of this directive.

Says the former correctional officer:

Honestly, I believe [strip searching] was done to control the inmates by destroying their humanity and to stop correctional officers from asking questions because it’s all “policy.” It isn’t until you’ve done too many questionable strip searches that you begin to ask yourself, Is this okay? And then it’s easier to just pretend it’s normal than to admit culpability. I was a part of that, and now I have to live with it.

“The moment you walk in the door at Burnside you are stripped of your dignity and humanity,” he says. “No matter your sex, religion, or creed. No matter if you are an inmate or staff member.”

Allegations are also made that prisoners at Burnside face difficulties in properly accessing legal counsel. According to staff, they witness problems with receiving disclosure (the evidence to be used at trial). Staff recount that judges have ordered the facility to make sure prisoners are receiving documents, but as no policy changes were made, the problems persist.

“Inmates are very lucky if they manage to get adequate legal representation while on remand,” says the former correctional officer.

Among the unsanitary and dangerous conditions in the jail, former and current correctional officers allege that the holding cells in the admitting area have drains on the floor, and prisoners sleep on the floor beside the drains. 

According to staff who have worked at Burnside, the chronic and dangerous conditions are due to systemic failures of management. Correctional officers describe a “culture of fear” where staff who question policies or raise problems face retaliation. Staff claim that correctional officers are given “no autonomy or discretion” to do their jobs, and anything from talking too long to a prisoner to calling in sick to questioning a management decision can result in being targeted.

Correctional officers claim that this punitive culture results in staff being too afraid to report problems, and lead to reports being filed that ignore and downplay serious issues.

Says the former correctional officer:

This is systemic within Correctional Services. The captain’s manager, the ADSO, then tells the superintendent everything is under control, the superintendent tells the director who is downtown everything is fine at Burnside and up the ladder this continues until everyone who is above the rank of acting captain believes everything is really okay at Burnside.

More serious allegations of retaliation include correctional officers being shuffled around to work unsafe areas without adequate protection. Staff also allege lacking training in key areas like managing mental health ranges, policy changes implemented with no warning, and understaffed ranges opened without adequate preparation.

Staff also report that when they are assaulted in the facility, their phone numbers, Social Insurance Numbers, addresses and other personal information have been made available in the files released to the accused, placing them in fear for their lives.

Correctional officers who needed medical leave due to health issues caused by working in the facility also report facing pay cuts, and having to fight for months and years to have leave or benefits approved.

“I could trust the inmates more than my own management,” says the former correctional officer.

The allegations by guards match the claims made by prisoners about the conditions in the facility.

“There are good women and men locked up on both sides of the bars at Burnside” says the former correctional officer.  “I just keep telling myself this is not normal, not acceptable, and the only reason it isn’t national news is because they are so good at covering everything up.”

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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