This week, the auditor general’s office released a review of “close confinement” practices in Nova Scotia jails.

Image of segregation cell in Pictou jail from thecoast.ca

The report found that the rules about segregating prisoners are frequently not being followed and that documentation is not being kept. The findings show that prisoners in segregation are not being given showers or getting the required exercise time. Reviews that are supposed to take place after 24 hours and after five days are not being conducted. Proper authorization is frequently not present, and medical documentation is missing.

In addition, staff have not received required training in mental illnesses, and courses that are supposed to be offered are not available.

On Friday, Sean Kelly, the director of correctional services, insisted that both before and after the audit the jail has made improvements:

The auditor general’s office examined 47 files and found in 22 of them “staff did not review the status of offenders in close confinement at the correct frequency.”

Inmates are supposed to have their mental and physical state reviewed 24 hours after being placed in segregation and then every five days afterwards.

Kelly said a review completed in April found an 85 per cent compliance rate for the 24-hour check, and the five-day check was happening 95 per cent of the time.

He’s happy to see improvement, but not completely satisfied. “Even 85 [per cent] is less than we’d like to see,” he said.

Kelly said there has also been improvement when it comes to making sure guards offer inmates in segregation a chance to get out of their cells for exercise at least 30 minutes a day, or to take a shower every 48 hours.

The auditor general’s report said in 35 of the 47 files it examined, there was no indication inmates had been allowed either.

Kelly said it’s now happening and being recorded.

These improvements are disputed by prisoners, who allege that the same problems are still frequently taking place.

Photo: Halifax Examiner

One woman reports being segregated within the last month for five days without being given a reason. She alleges she was never offered a phone call, a shower, any outside time, or a change of clothes. When she was taken out of segregation, she had to attend court without a shower or a change of clothes. She did not receive her methadone during that time.

Women suggest that segregation continues to be used when other options are available, and they feel the rules are applied inconsistently. Women also report that they are segregated for suicidal tendencies and that they are receiving little help with mental health problems.

When I asked directly if they believed changes have been made to segregation practices, the response was: “No, they haven’t. At all.”

The women who spoke to me also raised concerns with the treatment they have observed of Trans women. One woman spoke about how Trans women are supposed to receive undergarments that allow them to tuck their genitals. While women are supposed to get three pairs of underwear, Trans women are only receiving one undergarment, which they either have to wear without washing, or not wear and and face concerns about their genitals. The women pointed to this kind of daily problem as contributing to the vulnerabilities of Trans women in prison that lead to high segregation rates and the isolation and bullying of Trans women.

(On the subject of hygiene, women also say that the prices are being raised in the canteen for hygiene products. Women with allergies or skin sensitivities may be unable to use the free products provided in the hygiene pack and have to rely on the canteen — which is difficult for women living in poverty without family support to access. These go to fundamental issues of dignity.)

Kelly additionally said he was “pleased” that outside pressure is forcing changes within the jail:

“I’m actually very pleased, to be quite honest, although it might seem odd that we’ve had so much attention from the outside, because I think it’s helped us to make a lot of changes in our system and I think we are improving by the month,” Kelly said.

This is comforting to know, as in the past when I have written stories detailing complaints by prisoners about the province’s jails, prisoners who are suspected of having talked to me have faced questioning and have been accused of being “trouble makers,” a label that has also been applied to me. It’s a relief to be sure that people who talked to me for this story and at other times are at no risk of any retaliation, and that the jail welcomes their contributions to this investigation and to the improvements that are being made due to their courage in speaking out.

Photo: Halifax Examiner

Speaking to a former male prisoner about his experiences of segregation, he recalled the shock of cell entry, how the guards stomp their feet in unison, and rush into the cell yelling and hammering their shields with batons in order to subdue the prisoners.

He estimates he served over two years of segregation between his provincial and federal time.

He describes segregation this way:

It’s a dingy hole of hell. It’s terrible really. The guards, they dismiss you. Talk to you like you’re an idiot.

They ask you not to hit your panic button to get their attention if you need something. So when they’re doing a round you’re supposed to holler for them. The majority of the time they just walk by.

So you hit your panic button to get their attention finally. They come, they get mad. They shut off your power, or they just ignore you right off the hop. They charge you with hitting your panic button when it wasn’t an emergency, so you gotta pay a fine for that. It’s usually like $10 but you only get $13 pay, so it’s kind of shitty.

It seems like a small thing, but they don’t let you request what time to go outside, which if you’re trying to go outside and get sun, or get warm or something, it’s usually not the best to be going out at like 7 o’clock in the morning.

They give you one time, which is basically, every day at 7am they come around and ask you, do you want to go outside. They give you enough time to eat your breakfast, and about 20 minutes later, they come back and say, all right let’s go outside. And man, it’s freezing cold out there. It’s 7 in the morning. The sun’s barely had enough time to grace the earth and you’re asking me if I want to go out. Can we wait til lunch time? And they say, no. We asked you once, and you said no, so it’s good. So sometimes they ask you once and you say, no man, can I go out in the afternoon? They say no, and then they walk away. You say, well no, I want to go out now then, and they tell you, you said no.

They do reports sporadically. They do them after five days which is par for the course. But then, once it gets past five days, some institutions will do it, like, five days after that, or maybe, I don’t know, two weeks, a month. They surprise you with it. They don’t give you any time to really build a case for why you shouldn’t be in segregation. And the review, it’s bullshit. All it is is just asking you, “are you losing your mind? No? Well then we plan on keeping you here.” And then they fuck off. They leave.

It’s really, it’s not fun. I mean, segregation, you don’t expect it to be fun but it’s fucking horrible.

They come down. Several guards will come down to your cell. And they’ll tell you that you’re going to segregation and they’ll ask you to put your hands behind your back so they can handcuff you and stuff.

And God forbid if you’re someone they dislike, because usually they just…a couple of times when I was taken down I got handcuffed behind my back and they grab you by the handcuffs, and like two…one’s supposed to grab you on one side by the handcuffs and the other’s supposed to grab you on the other arm, but sometimes they’ll trip you and just grab you by the handcuffs and kind of like half drag you, half stumble step you down the hall with your arms jacked up behind your back. But, whenever you say “what are you doing this for,” they say, because you’re resisting. Which, resisting could be like, man them cuffs are pretty tight. You want to loosen them up? And they yank you.

Uh, when you ask for books when you’re down there…oh, when you get down there, they don’t give you your TV for five days. [This is in federal institutions.] Well, five working days, so unless you go on a Monday, you’re not getting your TV for seven days actually which is…it’s fucking torture. I’m telling you, man. Just seven days in the hole with no TV goes by like a month.

There’s no sympathy from them because they’re just doing what they’re told. If you ask the higher ups, like, what’s the reasoning behind this, they don’t really give you one, they just say that’s the way that we do it.

And it really is, like, the worst seven days of your life.

I started hating damn near everything. Like just, even the process of just opening my eyes in the morning. Because I realized, I’m in a fucking cage all day. You only get to shower for, shower time is only 10 minutes. And if you want to get out other than that, they put you out in another little cage, only outside, at 7 o’clock in the morning. 

But, you just start to really, I don’t know. Like you don’t look forward to the following day. You think you would because it’s like, well it’s one day closer. No. It’s one day more. It’s pretty dark sometimes in there. Because you just stop thinking about anything other than the fact that you’re in the hole.

You wake up looking at that fucking door. Go to sleep looking at that fucking door. You wake up again looking at the fucking door. 

And, it seems as though they don’t understand how crazy it is to lock…I understand we’re in prison. We have to be taken…like we have to be, penalized. But locking a human being up in a cell for months at a time. No good is going to come of that. 

I started hearing voices and shit. I could swear that someone was out in front of my cell when no one was there. I’d get up and look just to make sure.

Yeah, and they just kept not giving a shit. I’d say, I’m really freaked out about my own fucking thoughts, and they’d just tell me to do some fucking puzzles. Because they give you a little mental health packet which is just, like, puzzles and stuff. Word searches. Oh yeah, that will keep me sane. Word searches, thanks.

They break TVs a lot, which, I mean, to the guards it’s probably just them getting back at us, for I don’t know, some perceived slight, or even a real slight. But whatever they have to endure, whatever names they have to endure being called for five seconds, is nothing compared to like any hole time with no TV. I’m telling you, it’s the worst thing. Ever.

Because it’s silent. And if it ain’t silent you’re just hearing people scream, and cell fighting. God, it’s not fun. And it doesn’t benefit anyone. It’s not like it’s teaching the inmate a lesson. All it’s doing is teaching them to hate even deeper. 

What would I say to the attorney general? Stop lying. Stop acting like he’s oblivious to everything that’s going on. Like it’s normal to put other human beings through these things. We got sentenced to however many years, months, in prison. We didn’t get sentenced to segregation time. We didn’t get sentenced to losing our fucking minds. Stop acting like that shit’s normal.

El Jones

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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