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

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In a letter submitted to the courts, John Scoville, the Director of Correctional Services, outlines protective measures taken to avoid a outbreak of COVID-19, and then ends with the suggestion that being in jail is safer than being in the broader community during the pandemic:

With the unprecedented reduction of the inmate population and the screening and preventative measures we have put in place to mitigate risk, our performance can be compared favourable [sic] to increasing cases in the public domain.

There is no evidence for this claim.

Scoville cites Dr. Lisa Barrett as the “lead advisor” for Nova Scotia Corrections “in preventative measures and management actions if an infection occurs.” The letter lists the measures the institution has allegedly taken to “maximize safety for our inmates and staff and minimize their risk.”

These include closure of the facility to visitors, reduction of transfers, selected release of prisoners, increased screening of inmates and staff, and an enhanced cleaning regime and provision of additional cleaning materials.

While the measures detailed by Scoville follow public health recommendations to reduce the risk of infection in institutions, there is no research that shows mitigating risk in correctional facilities makes those facilities safer than the public. No studies show that keeping people incarcerated during a pandemic is better health policy than releasing people to the community.

There has currently been no review of the measures taken in the province’s correctional facilities to see if they have been adequately implemented or that has determined the success of these actions.

The Examiner contacted Dr. Barrett for comment on whether Scoville’s claim about the relative safety of the provincial correctional facilities is supported by medical evidence. Barrett responded:

The letter is not mine but that of the signatory groups. I am an infectious diseases doctor and was involved in discussion about risk reduction only. 

Barrett has not responded to follow-up questions for clarification.

Medical consensus around health in carceral facilities is that prisoners are at heightened risk of infection. A recent article in The Lancet, one of the world’s leading medical journals, showed that “prisons are epicenters for infectious diseases.”

Dr. Claire Bodkin is a resident family physician who has trained in Ontario provincial jails and a federal correctional institution in BC. She is a prison health researcher and is the Vice Chair of the prison health interest group at the College of Family Physicians of Canada. She spoke to the Examiner in her personal capacity, and not as the representative of any group.

Bodkin responded to the Examiner’s request for comment on the medical opinion about the safety of jails during a pandemic:

The idea that prisons are somehow safer than community with respect to COVID-19 is extremely dangerous.

COVID can be expected to spread quickly in prison because people cannot practice physical distancing as recommended by every public health agency in this country — overcrowded conditions, communal meal preparation, corrections staff going in and out of the facility each day, and a lack of access to hand sanitizer and proper personal and environmental hygiene measures all contribute to the problem.

Once COVID-19 takes hold, people in prison are at higher risk of severe illness due to their high rates of multiple co-morbidities, including cardiac and lung problems. If there are not sufficient supports on release, then prisons should be working with local municipalities to ensure safe housing and adequate access to medical care and social services to establish these.

Dr. Nanky Rai, a family physician in Toronto trained in public health describes Scoville’s position as “factually inaccurate.”

Defence lawyers say that Scoville’s letter has had an impact in court. Trevor McGuigan, the President of the Nova Scotia Criminal Lawyers Association, told the Examiner:

I am aware that in some cases where the Crown is opposing a person’s release they have presented this letter to the Court. The concern of Defence lawyers is that the letter may imply that jail is perfectly safe and there is no heightened risk, in particular the letter’s final sentence.

I understand that at least one Crown Attorney argued that he had been advised by Mr. Scoville that jail is safer than the street right now. That is a dangerous suggestion and contrary to every expert who has commented on the issue that I’m aware of.

Stan MacDonald, a criminal defence lawyer with Patterson Law, agrees with McGuigan’s concerns about the ways the letter is being taken up:

Mr. Scoville has been quoted by a prosecutor on the court record as saying that people are safer in Nova Scotia jails than those who are not in jail. I have not spoken with Mr. Scoville about this comment…it certainly struck me as something that could only be said by someone who is not in jail during this pandemic. 

Senator Kim Pate. Photo: University of Ottawa

Senator Kim Pate, a member of the senate human rights committee and former Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, tells the Examiner:

We are hearing from many physicians and other healthcare workers about their concerns about what is happening in the prisons. Most are urging immediate release mechanisms for as many prisoners as possible in order to make room for the physical distancing protocols recommended by the World Health Organization and most international and Canadian health authorities.

Despite recognizing their professional standards, I have been disturbed to learn how many are fearful of retribution should they be seen as contradicting correctional authorities with respect to public health and safety concerns. 

The Examiner interviewed prisoners about whether the statements made in Scoville’s letter about current conditions in the province’s jails are accurate. One prisoner told the Examiner that:

There’s a grain of truth to some of what he’s saying. There’s definitely a lot less people. Really, nobody’s come in for a bit. But there’s no way you could say this place is safer than the street, that’s a joke.

I’m clearly much, much safer at home isolated by myself in my house. Without question. Rather than when I have direct and indirect contact with over 100 people every day. Every single piece of food that is brought to me is being made by other people. It’s being handled by other people. It’s definitely not how they’re making it out. 

Someone who was recently incarcerated in Burnside told the Examiner:

If Scoville thinks it’s safe, maybe he’d like to spend this time locked down in jail.

At the province’s daily COVID briefing, Examiner editor Tim Bousquet asked Dr. Robert Strang, the province’s chief medical officer, about Scoville’s claim. Strang responded:

I haven’t seen that direct correspondence, so I can’t really comment on that. I do know that there is a group from the Nova Scotia Health Authority — an infectious disease physician and infectious control people — that are providing support to our correctional facilities to come up with appropriate protocols in how do we keep our correctional facilities as safe as we possibly can.

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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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  1. Interesting, having worked as an RN at burnside in the rehab unit ( mentally ill) there is a constant change of staff, so the risk would be from there. If they are testing staff, then I would say it may be true that inmates/ inpatients are at less risk. Of course on the health units each patient had their own room, the food carts came from the jail side, and correction officers provided security making occasional rounds. I would say the place would be as risky/ or non risky as a seniors facility. Probably less risky but only because of age. Seniors are at higher risk due to age BUT immune systems may be less strong in incarcerated folks. Most of the patients on the health units were under 40. I cant speak for the average age in the correctional section. Toss up really,