The Halifax Examiner is covering the prisoner protest at the Burnside jail:
• The statement released by the prisoners can be read here.
• An interview with Jason MacLean, NSGEU President and correctional officer is here.
• A prisoner account about the staffing shortage, the lockdown, and the problems with the change to a direct supervision model can be found here.
•An editorial by nurse and director of Women’s Wellness Within about health care in prison is here.

In May, Tim and I attended a media tour of the renovations to the new direct supervision day rooms at the Burnside jail (Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility).

On that tour, reporters were informed about the new body scanners that had been installed in the jail. The scanners are supposed to reduce contraband in the facility by 90 per cent. Prisoners are required to go through the scanners when they are admitted, or when they change ranges in the jail. Staff are not required to be scanned.

In our previous reporting, Tim raised questions about privacy and safety issues with the scanners. I also wondered about the legal implications of refusing scans, and what the policy around refusals would be.

On Friday, David Burke, writing for the CBC, reported that the staff are “struggling to use X-ray body scanners recently installed in provincial jails and is urging the government to provide better training.”

…Some correctional officers are having trouble understanding exactly what it is they’re seeing, according to the president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union.

“You have X-ray technicians and doctors that are going through this stuff in the hospitals. Not just anybody can read an X-ray,” said Jason MacLean. “Not everybody knows the body’s anatomy and not everybody knows something that is contraband.”

That can lead correctional officers to misinterpret a scan and potentially miss contraband bound for the inside of a jail.

Despite the difficulties staff are facing in accurately interpreting the results of the scanners, prisoners report that they have faced reprisals for refusing the scans. Prisoners who chose not to go through the scanners were subjected to humiliating treatment and segregation.

Previously, prisoners reported that the protests at Burnside were in part sparked by promises that had been made to them about programs, equipment, amenities, and other resources that would be available when they came to the new direct supervision ranges. Instead, when they arrived on the ranges, they say they found toilets that didn’t flush, cells without water, and they spent 23 hours a day locked down. They also report they were not able in this time to get clean clothes, bedding, and were not given time outside or any programs or activities.

According to prisoners, another factor in the current protest is that when they were transferring to the new day rooms, they agreed to drop their challenges to being scanned in return for the promises of more gym time, programs, and better food they were told they would be receiving.

In the weeks before the release of the statement to the public, a number of prisoners who refused to be scanned faced punishment and segregation. As one of the prisoners tells the Halifax Examiner:

We had originally been told we had a right to refuse the body scanner. They selected six [prisoners] randomly during a search and told us we needed to do the body scanner. We said, “Do we have to?” and they said, “No, you have the right to refuse it.”

When [prisoners] refused it, they were put in a dry cell. They were strip-searched and put in a dry cell, where they watch you defecate two or three times. You’re in a cell with no water, no toilet, on camera the entire time, strip-searched, and then when you use the washroom, they inspect what you did.

OK, so [the prisoners] completed that, and clearly there’s no contraband. Then, they were still not allowed to go back to the range, and were given six days in segregation as a consequence, because they’d refused the body scan.

When those six days expired, they were then told by upper management, “No, you’re not leaving until you body scan,” because they’re afraid that people will protest the scan.

We said that we wanted to be given information on the safety of the body scanner. They said it’s completely safe. We said, “Can we see some information on this?” and they promised to get us that, which they never did.

After a few extra days in segregation, everyone came back and discussed with the other prisoners whether we’re going to consent. We still haven’t been provided with any information on the levels of radiation, and safety.

We also asked for policies that decided when people were allowed to be put in segregation, and they said that we’re not allowed to see the policy on segregation, but that they will provide us with information that came from the policies. This still hasn’t been provided.

There have been a couple of incidents where people were put in segregation because of a false positive. They didn’t have anything, they just had things in their bowels that looked like something on the scanner. So they were put in segregation.

In May, the Auditor General reported that the province is not following its own policies regarding segregation. Asaf Rashid, a lawyer who practices in the area of prison law, questions the legality of segregating prisoners for refusing the scans; he tells the Halifax Examiner:

Putting inmates in segregation for refusing body scan runs contrary to the law in my opinion. We need to keep in mind how extremely depriving and dehumanizing the practice of administrative segregation is.

Courts in Canada, including very recent decisions in British Columbia, have recognized that being put into administrative segregation has negative psychological impacts, which become more extreme as the time in segregation increases.

Administrative segregation is contrary to inmates’ fundamental rights to liberty and security of the person. Liberty runs along a spectrum. Inmates in segregation are utterly deprived of liberty beyond even inmates in general population. Courts in Canada have clearly established this.

The only way that correctional authorities have been able to continue the practice is through Section 31 of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, which only allows the practice in cases where there is a safety risk to that inmate or other inmates or staff; a real risk of criminal activity or serious disciplinary violations if the inmate associates with others; AND, if there is no alternative. There must be some demonstrable risk of serious harm, not a hypothetical possibility.

Segregating inmates for days for refusing to go through a body scanner simply because they want to know more information about the safety of the scanners does not make them a safety risk to anyone. A refusal to participate in the body scanner does not prove that an inmate has contraband. No tangible evidence whatsoever of any illegal substance is demonstrated by the refusal. It is just like refusing to blow into an ASD at a roadside test does not prove impairment.

In fact, inmates in this case who refused to participate in the body scan did not have any contraband discovered on them while they were segregated. Yet, even with this discovery, these inmates were not allowed back into general population. Where is the safety issue at this point? Would it not be a reasonable alternative to just provide inmates with more information about the body scanners? What we are seeing here is a serious abuse of a very extreme practice that correctional authorities have at their disposal.

The prisoners decided not to challenge the scanners, believing that they would be receiving better conditions on the new range:

In agreeing to go through the scanners to get to the new direct supervision range, part of the reason we agreed to this was the privileges they promised us, the six program officers on at all times, increased access to the [air] court, so we can go outside, increased access to gym, and so on.

They cancelled the offender committee meetings; none of the things were followed up. We get over here, there’s no fitness equipment, no coffee maker, none of it. We have yet to see one program officer. We have yet to be taken to the gym. We’re locked down most of the day, because they’re saying they’re short on staff.

Frustrations about the conditions remain high:

They put up a sign on the wall, saying that if there’s any fights on the range, we’ll be in complete lockdown. But they’re setting us up by putting us with inmates that they know have fought in the past, and have been living on different ranges because they can’t get along together, instead of putting us with prisoners they know we could live with.

…We’ve been keeping complete order in here. Not even so much as a threat to a guard, no yelling, not one conflict among inmates. The people who shouldn’t be living with us, they’ve been left on their own, with a simple talk, no violence. This has been going on now for seven days.

Nothing has been done as far as the incentives to make this a smooth transition. They put us here, knowing there would be staff refusals, as if purposely setting us up for failure, hoping for failure, so they could institute a permanent lockdown. At least we’ve been smart enough and patient enough to keep things completely calm, especially with the guards, and just wait this thing out.

Conditions during the lockdown left prisoners without access to running water or clean clothes:

When we moved over, they took our clothes and didn’t give them back. Inmates have been waiting in the same clothes for days and days. There hasn’t been time to shower most days, and many cells don’t have any running water yet. They didn’t check the water system before moving us over. Unbelieveable frustrations for all of us, but we’ve kept it really calm, trying to get the word out on the outside about what’s happening.

Someone should look into where the money [on renovations] was spent. The only thing we can find that’s different is that they took out a wall, and everything’s been resurfaced with new paint, and a desk at the front, that looks like it’s made from brick they took out of the wall, and two new televisions. That’s it. There’s something strange going on here.

There’s no other correctional institution run this way.

It’s been a week of this bullshit, extra staff watching us, the laundry not being done, these sorts of annoying things. But if we don’t see something happening with the program officers, the equipment, and the other things we were promised, we might have to consider doing things like sit-out peaceful protests, to refuse to lock up. We don’t see any other option, but we don’t want to do that, because they’ll use that as an excuse to lock us down. We’re hoping that there will be enough outside support that means we won’t have to do that. If we have to, there’ll be peaceful protests, just sitting on the floor.

There are also concerns about the effect of visiting policies on their families and children. Prisoners report that limits on the visiting lists do not exist in other institutions in the province, and particularly affect people with long delays in waiting for trial:

Here, they have visiting lists, which are not used at any other correctional institution. On the list, we’re allowed to have a certain number of people. We’re allowed our mother, father, brothers, sisters, and two friends. In the “friend” group are cousins, aunts, uncles, nephews, and so on.

We can only have two, and these names can be changed only every six months. These people can visit only twice a week. At other facilities, people can show up and visit, without putting their name on a list, without any limits. Lots of folks housed here for up to five years have more than two cousins, relatives, friends, but they can’t ever see them, because they can’t be put on the list.

Having family contact visits with the body scanner is legal everywhere else in Canada. There’s no reason that contraband should limit a family visit. We have people in here not convicted of anything, waiting for years to go to trial, and with small children, and these kids are developing attachment disorders because they’re not allowed to touch their family member, who haven’t been tried yet. It’s unbelievable, there’s no justification for that.

We would like a more open list, with the ability for more than one visit a week. We also want contact visits at least with close family. With the scanner, there’s no security risk now.

If the conditions in the jail are not resolved, people fear that these policies will cause serious problems:

We have 40 guys living together in the same room, without any physical equipment, no physical outlets. It’s very hard, and it’s gonna lead to violence.

The Halifax Examiner is an advertisement-free, subscriber-supported website. Thanks to your subscriptions and contributions, we are able to provide El Jones’ commentary and reporting on prison issues. To help us to continue with this work, please consider subscribing to the Examiner. Just $5 or $10 a month goes a long way. Or, consider making a one-time contribution via PayPal. Thanks much!

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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  2. El,

    As someone who works in healthcare with radiation, i think another issue around these x-ray body scanners is the amount of radiation prisoners are getting. Each scan is most likely low, but they are going through repeated scans, and potentially receiving a good chunk of radiation. And you can bet the guards are not properly trained for this.
    Although we use radiation to successfully treat cancer, it can also cause damage to tissue and lead to increased risk of cancer.
    Subjecting a person to involuntary repeated x-rays which can lead to increased risk of cancer has got to be a human rights violation. See if you can dig up more info on these scanners. We can do some calculations on this.