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A new phone line has been launched by East Coast Prison Justice Society (ECPJS) to monitor conditions in provincial jails during the COVID-19 epidemic.

Sheila Wildeman, Chair of the ECPJS, says that the line grew out of a planned project to monitor provincial jails. When COVID-19 closed facilities to visitors, the Society decided to open a phone line to ensure prisoners had an avenue to communicate:

The original idea was to have civil society representatives go in to provincial jails to hear from prisoners about the conditions and treatment they are experiencing, bring what we hear to the attention of corrections and justice authorities as a form of systemic advocacy, and produce periodic public reports.

With COVID-19, it is all the more critical to hear from those inside whether or how they are being protected.

The line is a free 1-877 number run by volunteers, most of whom are legally trained. Volunteers have taken part in training sessions over the past year, and the Society says more sessions are planned to respond to issues raised in calls to the line.

The phone line follows a similar line in Ottawa run by volunteers from the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project. However, the line in Nova Scotia is focused on addressing systemic issues rather than engaging in individual advocacy. One challenge in launching the line is getting the information to prisoners across the province. Prisoners have been hearing about the number from each other and from their lawyers. The Society also encourages institutions to share the number and to make sure prisoners have access.

Wildeman says the line is crucial in shedding a light on conditions during COVID-19 that otherwise may not be reported:

Through this project, East Coast Prison Justice Society is working to reach into provincial jails to hear from prisoners, who are among the least able to tell their side of the story during the pandemic and at other times.  We want to hear both how they are or are not being protected from COVID-19 and whether or how they are experiencing more intense liberty restrictions. 

The Society is also hoping to expand the line into federal facilities. According to Wildeman:

It is as or more critical to hear from federal prisoners, given the federal government’s resistance to undertaking the kinds of essential public health protective decarceration efforts that Nova Scotia undertook.

Hanna Garson, the Executive Director of the ECPJS, says that while the project is in its early stages, ECPJS hopes that the line will provide new avenues for advocacy both with the institutions and with government, as well as offering information to incarcerated people:

We hope to create a line of contact from the inside into society. One of the most crushing pieces of imprisonment is the epistemological black hole that it forces upon prisoners. We are also focused on recording and assessing the information received to create data that supports the areas in which change is more seriously required. Change is not made based on anecdote.

Hopefully this “data” will be useful in providing something tangible to work with in arguing for reform. The line also enables volunteers to provide information about resources and any community organizations that may be of assistance.

The line will help to identify gaps in the system, particularly surrounding access to justice issues. For example, Garson suggests, the province does not currently fund legal representation for habeas corpus applications (where prisoners challenge restrictions of liberty and the conditions of confinement.) Hearing directly from prisoners can provide the province with data that can be used to advocate for appropriate resources such as funding for legal counsel in these cases.

ECPJS Vice-Chair Harry Critchley is a volunteer for the line. Over the weeks the line has been active, Critchley says that calls to the line have identified concerns about how facilities have been managing the pandemic:

So far, some of the calls we’ve had concern how the pandemic policy is being applied, especially as it relates to the isolation procedures for newly admitted prisoners. We’ve heard concerns, for example, that people are being held in segregation for 2 weeks upon entry. Segregation can have devastating impacts on people’s mental and physical health and now, where test results are available within 24 to 48 hours, there’s generally no need to segregate someone for this length of time.

We know that, according to Corrections’ COVID protocol, this is only supposed to happen in a very specific circumstance–namely, if someone is known to have been in a close contact, or reside in a facility with, known or suspected cases of COVID. Even if this were the case for the callers we’ve had so far, this policy needs to be more clearly communicated, especially in light of the heightened levels of stress everyone is experiencing right now.

Advocates see the line as valuable not only for addressing conditions in the prison, but in providing important information to support community release of prisoners. During COVID-19, almost half of provincial prisoners have been released into the community. ECPJS continues to advocate for resources to allow people released from institutions. Critchley says:

Going forward, we’re hoping that we can use this information to raise concerns with Corrections management and/or the pandemic planning and response team for the Department of Justice so as to advocate for further community releases and more coordinated responses within the facilities themselves.

For Wildeman, while the line is starting small, the Society believes that it can be part of broader efforts in the province that were begun during the pandemic. People from across sectors – including crowns. defence counsel, judges, advocates, and service providers – worked together to quickly address the COVID crisis

I hope that this project is just the start of more civil society efforts to find imaginative ways to reach into closed institutions and amplify the voices of those inside. COVID-19 has forced us to think harder about the brutality and irrationality of our treatment not only of those who are in jails, who are strikingly over-representative of communities subject to colonial, hetero-patriarchal, racial and ableist oppression, but also those who have been forced or “placed” into a range of other unchosen congregate living spaces — from nursing homes, to forensic and civil psychiatric hospitals, to the province’s disability institutions from large, outdated facilities like King’s Regional Rehabilitation to smaller institutions like Halifax’s Quest. 

The question this project urges us to ask is: what can we do, as individuals, civil society groups and government, to listen to and learn from those who have been made, over time and through an accretion of public decisions and actions, most vulnerable to covid-19? How do we make sure we do not see the same or worse deepening of inequality, the disproportionate illness and death of the worst off, during the next waves of this pandemic and the next pandemic after that?

People incarcerated in provincial institutions in Nova Scotia can reach volunteers on the line at 1-877-589-9294. The line is staffed Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9-11am and from 1-4pm.

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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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