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

On Sunday (August 19), the Examiner published a statement by prisoners at the Burnside jail outlining the conditions in the jail and presenting 10 demands. Jason MacLean, NSGEU President and correctional officer responds here.

The protest is in part sparked by the move to the direct supervision model. Both staff and prisoners say that the change to new day rooms has been disorganized, that there is little in place to support the move, and that a number of promises to both staff and prisoners have not been fulfilled.

These conditions led to a labour action where staff, unable to hear their radios, refused to work in the new dayrooms. As a result of the problem with staffing, the prisoners have been locked in for 23 hours a day since at least the weekend.

In an interview with the Halifax Examiner, a prisoner in the jail describes the months-long process of creating the direct supervision range. In the planning stages, there were meetings which involved prisoners, guards, and corrections staff. At that point the prisoners felt like they were being given a voice, and their demands were being met:

Many of our basic demands — fitness equipment on the range, healthier canteen options, shoes, and others — were raised in committee and promised us by corrections staff. Offender committees were set up for West 2 and West 4, ranges that would be united in the new direct supervision range. The guards were resistant to the idea of direct supervision, and the inmates were very resistant. They decided to set up committees to figure out how West 2 and West 4 could live in harmony, and how we could live together with the guards in harmony. This is where all these requests for better living conditions came from, from the committees.

They let us know we’d have microwaves, coffee makers with real coffee, access to things like that right there on the range. We had meetings that went very well, with the chaplain and about four captains. They were telling us they were thrilled with how well we expressed our concerns, and that West 2 and 4 were promising they would be able to get along. They were very happy about the feedback we were giving them about issues with staff. Everything’s on a very positive note.

Then, all of a sudden, they delay the date for [the opening of] direct supervision, and the committee meetings stopped. As the date was getting closer, people started asking for meetings. Not a single thing from the committee meetings was implemented, and they’d promised to implement these things before we moved over, to establish their credibility.

Then, the date to move over here came, and there was absolutely nothing done. Not a single thing that they promised us was implemented. In fact, there’s less equipment to work out with than there was on our old range. And now, we’re in a lockdown, because staff refuse to work. 

The demands in the statement reflect promises made but left unfulfilled after the move.

The move to the new ranges also caused problems for staff and led to work refusals that the prisoners allege were well-known beforehand. The prisoner told the Examiner:

In the committee meetings, they said, “This is great. We want your guys’ input, we want you to be happy over there, we want this to run as smoothly as possible.”

So, they promise us things like a coffee maker, microwave, treadmill, stationary bike, a bunch of other fitness equipment, and six program officers on at all time, so we’d have a multitude of programs, including fitness programs, and extra gyms. And there’s supposed to be another air court, with good quality fitness gear outside.

When they move us over here, the range is just finished, there’s not one single piece of fitness equipment on it of any type. The officers are all refusing to work on [the range]; they’ll only work on it one to two hours a day. They say they’re scared, they didn’t install the noise-killing things, so it’s too loud, and they’re scared by how many inmates are on here.

The correctional institution knew there was going to be work refusals for the last few months. They’re doing refusals to work right on the range, and even though we’re the same number of us as before, and there’s actually more guards on than when we were on the other side, because there’s not two guards on our range, the only difference is that this range is bigger. They won’t let us out. So, we’re locked down 23 hours a day, because they’re doing work refusal to the new policy, which [Corrections officials] knew they were going to do.

At the offender committee meetings, they said they planned to implement all the things we asked for, which were better food, healthy canteen, healthy [meal] options, better fitness equipment, more access to gyms, and so on. Everything they promised to implement hasn’t been done. There’s no sign that they’re going to do any of it. No talk about doing any of it. We haven’t seen one program officer yet, if there are any. The staff are refusing to work.

The prisoners also allege that there are attempts to stoke tensions on the ranges by housing incompatibles together:

Now, they came and put a sign up on the wall, saying that if there’s any fights, your unit will be handled as a lockdown unit, and will be locked down all the time with small rotation and will be run exactly like the federal Special Handling Unit where they put the most violent prisoners in Canada. That’s how they’re planning to run this if there are fights.

Now, in order to make sure there are fights: they’re guys who’ve checked into protective custody, who are rats, who are living three by three on their own with no fights. These guys are known rats; they’ve been in fights with guys already on this range, and they’re not supposed be put on this range. They’re clearly trying to start fights, by bringing these guys in here, to get justification to put this range on permanent lockdown.

Supposedly, these guys [the staff] are going to protest for the next month that they don’t want to work on a direct supervision range. We’ll be on 23-hour lockdown while they do that.

Prisoners also have questions about the cost of the renovations, and whether that money is reflected in the actual conditions on the ranges. Allegations include toilets that don’t flush, and cells with no running water:

We’ve heard that the renovations cost $11 million [note: they appear to have cost $6.8 million.] Having been on this [direct supervision] range and the old one, I can tell you what’s been done. There was a wall in the middle of the range, separating two ranges; that’s been taken down. A half wall by the stairs is still there. The range floor has been painted with grip paint. The cell doors and walls have been painted. There’s two newer TVs and a desk made of brick for the guards in the front. They added new reflective covering over the front windows. The leaky windows in the cells, the crappy lights, the same mirrors, the same toilets – they didn’t fix the plumbing.

In a bunch of cells, there’s no water and the toilets don’t flush, cause they didn’t fix the plumbing. And that’s where we are, 23 hours a day, for the next month. Having worked in construction, I bet the work they’ve done here would have cost $30,000.

Basically, they gave it a coat of paint, tore down one brick wall, made a few other changes, and that’s it. And this cost $11 million. They threw out the steel-top tables, and brought in stainless steel-top tables, which was a waste, cause they could have just put a stainless steel top on the steel tables.

The pressure to do this comes from the top. The guards don’t want to work this direct supervision range. Corrections hasn’t kept one promise so far. There’s absolutely nothing for us to do over here. We don’t even get access to the yard, which is our right: we’ve been in the yard twice. No fitness equipment. We haven’t even had clean clothes some times; no clean towels or bed sheets.

We’ve been silently doing nothing, not even swearing at the guards, so that there’s no excuse to lock us down. But we’re stuck in lockdown 23 hours a day anyway, because of their work refusal.

The Department of Justice has responded to the statement by the prisoners. The Department claims that the jail is “running as usual,” which contradicts reports by the prisoners — confirmed in the interview with Jason MacLean — that they have been locked down for 23 hours a day during a labour action.

While the Department of Justice has asserted that demands about programs, healthy food, and other conditions are already being met, direct prisoner accounts of the current conditions inside Burnside provide a different narrative.

Prisoners continue to emphasize that they are peaceful, that they have no intention to cause disruption or any violence, and that their demands are reasonable and represent things that they were told would be provided to them.

The Department of Justice has not responded to any reports of staffing problems in the jail or of a lockdown. So far, there have been no statements from Justice Minister Mark Furey commenting on the protest, or the conditions that prisoners are alleging. We will print any statements they provide.

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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