Photo: Halifax Examiner

Highlights from this story:
• a prison official agreed with the statement that “several” prisoners at the Burnside jail have died in the past week * (see note below)
• the three-week lockdown at the jail started when an inmate allegedly said that “someone is going to die” after the peaceful protest was ended
• prisoner Maurice Pratt hears for the first time at his hearing Monday that he made the alleged threats, an allegation he denies
• Pratt readily acknowledges that he has in the past assaulted jail guards but says “but when I do that, I take ownership… I’m honest”
• at least 10 guards refused to work in the new direct supervision unit at the jail, and Pratt alleges that they fabricated his alleged threats to justify their work stoppage
• left unanswered was why, if Pratt’s alleged threats were the concern, all 40 prisoners in the direct supervision unit were locked down

Monday, Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice James Chipman considered habeas corpus applications from eight prisoners at the Burnside Jail.

“Habeas corpus” is ancient English law, and translates from the Latin as something like “bring me the body.” In practice, a habeas application alleges that punishment and/or imprisonment is being meted out without due authority or legality. “Bring me the body” refers to both the body of the prisoner and the body of the law that justifies the punishment. The judge wants to see it all, so he or she can determine if the punishment is warranted.

In that vein, Chipman had previously ordered all eight prisoners be brought to court today so they could speak for themselves.

The prisoners allege that they have been unduly locked in their cells for 23 hours a day in “North Unit 3,” the new “direct supervision” day room at the jail.

I’ve reported on some of the habeas applications, but there’s been a slight change in the cast of characters. Today, Kaz Cox, Matthew Grimm, Maurice Pratt, Robert Sanford, Randy Riley, Matthew Lambert, and two new prisoners identified only as Mr. Croaker, and Mr. Leopold appeared in court (I may have the spelling of their names wrong). A ninth application, from Nelson Callish (again, I’m not certain of the spelling), was received by the court late Friday afternoon, but has not yet been entered into the court’s computer system; his application could perhaps be heard with the others, but one of the other prisoners said Callish has already been released on bail. (Yes, it’s strange that the prisoners are the source of information for the court.) Chipman also acknowledged that “many” other applications are expected; I’ve been told that number could reach 31.

Two other habeas applications have been dropped. Steven Skinner, who faces charges of murdering Stacey Adams, has been transferred to a federal institution. And last week, Justice Chipman ordered that Leonard Greenough, who alleges he shouldn’t be in jail at all, be moved to Kentville for an immediate bail hearing. So the habeas applications of Skinner and Greenough were considered moot and were no longer under consideration.

The remaining eight prisoners were initially represented by three lawyers — Hanna Garson, Sarah White, and Grace MacCormick. Garson and MacCormick are with the East Coast Prison Justice Society*, but each made clear that they were acting independent of the Society, as the Society does not provide legal counsel. On the Crown side was Duane Eddy, representing the jail.

Much of the morning was taken up by procedural issues that I won’t get into except to note that two of the prisoners on their own accord had requested video surveillance of their range in order to counter the jail’s claim that the prisoners weren’t in lockdown — the jail claimed that prisoners were being released from their cells many hours a day. (As we’ll see below, jail officials later conceded the point, and agreed that prisoners were in lockdown, in one case for perhaps a 36-hour stretch.)

Eddy, the Crown lawyer, had over the weekend given Chipman video surveillance of the entire three-week period in question, but Eddy did not provide that surveillance to the prisoners or to their lawyers. He explained today that the Crown objected to making the footage public because of “safety and security” concerns; disclosure of footage, he argued, “would be detrimental because it shows vantage points that are not covered [by the video camera]… blind spots, where an incident could occur.” You’d think the jail would rather address that issue than admit it had a potential security failure and leave it at that.

Chipman said he watched a couple of minutes of the video but decided it was useless as it wasn’t attached to an affidavit and he couldn’t even be sure it was taken at Burnside. Moreover, it would take him many days, perhaps weeks, to watch it all, and he wasn’t going to waste his time doing so, as habeas applications have an urgency to them. But for what it’s worth, he describe the video as a “birds-eye view of North 3.”

Maurice Pratt goes it alone

The prisoners’ lawyers told Chipman that they were negotiating with Eddy for documents and other evidence, and wanted to delay the habeas hearings until they received that evidence. Moreover, lawyer Hanna Garson said she wanted to proceed with the hearings even if conditions in the jail returned to normal — that is, if the lockdown ended.

This is a regular occurrence with habeas applications from prisoners: They file the application, but by the time the court can schedule a hearing on that application, the conditions that were at the root of the application have changed — the prisoner is moved to another institution, the lockdown is ended, etc. And so the hearing is cancelled because it’s a moot issue; as far as the court is concerned, the complaint is no longer valid. But that leaves no closure for the prisoner, and no judicial finding on the underlying issue.

Chipman said he’d have to consider a motion from Garson when the time came, but he seemed skeptical. In any event, a single hearing for all the prisoners represented by the lawyers was scheduled for next Monday.

But prisoner Maurice Pratt rejected that plan. He told Chipman he was ready for his habeas application to be heard then and there, and he’d represent himself. Pratt made reference to the changing conditions at the jail, and expressed the fear that his application would be deemed moot by the time a hearing was scheduled, so he wanted immediate resolution of the issue. But there also is some history between Pratt and lawyer Sarah White — White had represented Pratt on a previous assault charge — and that history seemed to play into Pratt’s decision to go it alone.

And so, Monday afternoon, Pratt, a self-described “at-risk, aboriginal Black man” with no legal representation, took on the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility and its lawyer, Duane Eddy.

Prisoner protest and lock down

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

Eddy called two witnesses: Brad Ross, the deputy superintendent of operations at the jail, and Chris Deal, the captain now in charge of North 3.

Ross explained that from the time the direct supervision North 3 wing of the prison opened in mid- to late-August (he wasn’t certain of the day) until September 2, prisoners were let out of their cells and into the day room for 11-and-a-half hours a day.

The day room has tables where prisoners can sit together, several TVs, some games (both video and board games), telephones to call outside, and showers. When locked in their cells, prisoners have nothing but their bunk, a toilet, and whatever reading material they might have.

When the day room is operating normally, that is, when prisoners are not locked in their cells, two guards sit in the room at a desk; guards are encouraged to interact with the prisoners to know what’s going on with them, and prisoners can approach the desk with requests. Guards have been wary of this direct supervision arrangement, which is relatively new to Nova Scotia; it was first implemented at the Northeast Correctional Facility in Pictou when that jail opened last year, and North 3 is the first unit in Burnside to use it. Prisoners have been of mixed opinion about direct supervision.

Two separate but perhaps related events occurred after the day room opened. On August 19, the prisoners embarked on a 20-day “peaceful protest,” which ended on September 9. Besides demands for better food and more rehabilitative programs, prisoners expressed their displeasure with new body scanners installed in the jail; the scanners are used to check for contraband, but prisoners fear they present a health risk.

As the peaceful protest was winding down, on September 9, correctional guards refused to work in North 3 day room.

Ross testified that the 11-and-a-half hour “rotation” was ended on September 2 because “intelligence” had relayed that a prisoner had threatened a correctional officer. Specifically, claimed Ross, the day before, prisoners and a correctional officer were discussing the peaceful protest, and that it would end in a week. That’s when another prisoner yelled out “yeah, and then someone is going to die,” referring to a guard.

While being questioned by Eddy, Ross said only that the prisoner who made the comment had assaulted staff in the past, and that he believed it could happen again. On cross-examination by Pratt, however, Ross said “that person was Maurice Pratt.”

The identification of himself as the threatening prisoner seemed to take Pratt by complete surprise. “That’s the first I’ve heard of it,” he said. “I 100 per cent deny that.”

As a result of the threat, said Ross, North 3 was put on lockdown. “Inmates said they were actually going to kill staff on September 9,” he testified. “There was going to be a riot.”

But, said Ross, the Joint Operational Health and Safety Committee (JOHSC) at the jail, which is composed of both jail officials and union members, recommended a slow ratcheting-down of the lockdown, from the near-total lockdown of September 2 through rotational lockdowns that could see different sets of cells opened at varying times, meaning the effective non-locked down time could be two or four hours.

Starting Monday, Ross said, there is a 50-50 rotation, and due to other planned schedule changes, that means that prisoners on North 3 are released from their cells six hours a day. “That change has nothing to do with these hearings,” he claimed.

But both Ross and Deal testified that the ratcheting-down of lockdown was interrupted on September 9, when guards refused to work in the North 3 day room. The refusal started with the two scheduled guards, but as prison officials went to other correctional officers to ask them to fill in, each refused in turn. All told, said Deal, some 10 correctional officers — perhaps as many as a dozen — refused to work in the day room.

As a result, North 3 was put on total lockdown for as long as 36 hours. But the situation has since deescalated, both Ross and Deal said.

From September 2 through September 10 “and few days beyond, the risk was very high,” said Ross. “But we transferred some of the main players to other facilities,” and tensions have eased.

Pratt remains on North 3.

Pratt pleads his case

When he later took the stand as a witness, Pratt readily admitted that he had in the past assaulted guards. He was convicted in 2015 of punching a woman guard in the face.

Pratt said that he is accused of uttering threats against a guard in April 2018, but he denies that allegation.

As for a third incident in July 2018, Pratt said he indeed punched a guard — “I punched him in the face, several times.” Eddy described the punch as a “sucker punch,” but Pratt said he punched the guard because the guard had first touched him, “invading my space.”

“Yes, I’ve assaulted officers before,” testified Pratt. “But when I do that, I take ownership. I feel like I’m justified sometimes, not all the times. But I take ownership. I’m honest.

“They say I threatened someone on September 2,” he continued. “That’s not true.”

Morevover, he said, if he had indeed threatened to kill a guard, why wasn’t any internal jail discipline initiated? “It would most likely result in criminal charges.”

Pratt repeatedly tried to frame the lockdown in terms of overall jail conditions, but Eddy objected to such arguments as irrelevant, and Chipman agreed.

Still, there was a plaintive aspect to Pratt’s arguments. He spoke of the attitudes on the part of the guards, the prison authorities, the outside world, and the court that the prisoners are simply criminals with no humanity. “They feel we’re criminals, so you deserve anything… No one has our best interests in mind and says ‘this is not fair.’ It’s messed up, man.”

As for the jail itself, Pratt described it as “overcrowded” and “dirty.”

“It’s been hard for me,” he said. “I don’t have any family. I’ve never been visited.”

And, he said, being imprisoned is taking a mental health toll. “Guys are dying weekly,” he said, and that claim was verified at least for the last week by Ross, who on cross-examination by Pratt agreed that “several” prisoners have died in the last week alone.

The suicide of Joshua Evans was reported by the CBC. I’ve been told, but cannot confirm, that an elderly man who had been imprisoned in Burnside recently died in hospital, presumably of natural causes. But I can’t say who the “several” deaths are or how they occurred. I’ve asked the Department of Justice for details, and expect to hear back later today.

“There’s no mental health counselling,” said Pratt. “People are dying around me.”

Pratt also said the internal jail investigative system is flawed. “The same people alleging that I assaulted them are the same ones finding me guilty.”

There’s also the question of fairness to the other prisoners, said Pratt. “Even if I did [threaten a guard], what about the other 39 guys on the range?”

That’s an interesting question, and may become relevant in the other prisoners’ hearings next week.

As for Pratt’s application, Justice Chipman said he would issue a ruling Wednesday morning.

* An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that lawyer Sarah White is with the East Coast Prison Justice Society. She is not.

Update, September 20: Justice Department spokesperson Sarah Gillis has asked me to more explicitly state that there have not been “several” deaths in the Burnside Jail. I’m happy to. Let me explain.

I was in court for Maurice Pratt’s habeas corpus application. Pratt was self-represented, and he at times rambled. The statement in question came during a cross-examination of jail administrator Brad Ross. It was Pratt, not Ross, who spoke of “several deaths,” in a long-winded question that (I believe) Ross agreed to. Ross tells me, and I don’t doubt him, that he agreed to a wider set of questions, but never to the statement that “several” people died.

Gillis assures me that all deaths in jail are immediately publicly reported, and that there have been no deaths other than the suicide of Joshua Evans in the jail itself, and the 81-year-old man in custody who died in hospital of natural causes.

Pratt did speak of “several” deaths, but I must have misinterpreted the context of that statement and Ross’s answer.

Again, Pratt’s claim of “several” deaths is incorrect.

Tim Bousquet

Tim Bousquet is the editor and publisher of the Halifax Examiner. Twitter @Tim_Bousquet Mastodon

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