My mother wanted to watch the Olympic opening ceremony with me. Here is some of her commentary.

On selfies: “They say selfies increasing the lice!”

Note: I’m guessing because people are putting their heads together for pictures more? I don’t know.

On the information that some countries are wearing “Zika pants” infused with mosquito repellant: “I hope they change them!”

On early training for throwing sports: “Everyone uses a coconut when they start.”

coconut cat

On the javelin thrower from Trinidad: “Your aunt told me her friend lives near him and she said she knew he was going to be a javelin thrower because he was always throwing sticks at her mangoes.”

1. On Medication in Jail

CBC has a story about people being denied medication in jails in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

Among the complaints by prisoners are that they are being denied access to medication or experiencing delays in getting medication, that methadone prescriptions are being cut, and that people are being forced to withdraw “cold turkey.”

Dr. Risk Kronfli, the clinical director for Nova Scotia’s offender health services, argues that due to concerns about people “cheeking” medication (hiding it in their mouths and bringing it back to the ranges), and the risk of people being muscled for their medication, the jail has to take measures to limit how medication is prescribed and administered. He also insists that prisoners are evaluated within 48 to 72 hours of admission, and within 24 hours in emergency cases.

Last year, I conducted a number of interviews with incarcerated people around this issue. I was first asked to help by the partner of someone who had been cut off all his ADHD medication and was experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms as a result. In his case, as the article discusses, he had been suspected of selling his medication, and this resulted in him being removed from medication he had been on since the age of 12. His symptoms included severe depression, hallucinations, uncontrollable moods, and self-harm. He ended up in solitary confinement. After I talked to him, others wanted to also share the experiences they had. Men and women reported the same difficulties in getting medication, of being accused of “drug seeking” behaviour when they asked for treatment, and in feeling degraded or humiliated in seeking medical care.

In the case of one person I know, he was admitted to jail without his medications. His family spent days confirming his prescriptions and calling the jail to make sure they had up-to-date copies. Despite that, and despite advocating with his lawyer, he still spent weeks without the right medications. During that time he self-harmed, was in solitary confinement, and was in severe mental distress, to the point of being unable to participate in his defence. His medications included drugs for sleep disorders — without them he was unable to sleep for days.

The problem of selling or misusing medication is a very real one. Particularly in provincial jails where intake is constant, where the jails are overcrowded, where there is nowhere near enough staff to monitor, and where with short term sentences there is constant turnover, it is very difficult to monitor or manage the flow of drugs. Not everyone has up-to-date medical records, not everyone is taking legal prescriptions, some people may be on inappropriate medication, and many people are taking street drugs along with their prescriptions. There is a real danger to incarcerated people of overdose or other harm if medications can’t be controlled and are being used wrongly. As Kronfli points out, people can be threatened for their medication or coerced into passing it to other people. These are real issues that make the administration of medication particularly challenging to patients.


But that’s the thing. Just because someone is in prison doesn’t mean that their status as “criminal” (many have not yet been convicted of anything and can be innocent) should override the care they are due as patients. The difficulty of security doesn’t change the fact that denying treatment for mental health problems or withholding medication as punishment are serious human rights concerns. And being a “criminal” shouldn’t mean that how people feel about the medical care they are receiving is irrelevant or automatically suspect.

And maybe we should ask why people might be selling their medication in the first place. When phone calls are as much as $7 and dinner comes round at 4pm meaning that people need to supplement their diet with canteen food, then there’s going to be incentive for people to sell whatever they have. If you’re poor already, maybe being able to talk to your mom or your child or your partner once a month is worth the risk of maybe getting caught selling off a pill or two. Just saying that people are criminals and addicts and that’s why they do these things doesn’t look at the conditions people are forced into in jail, and how the growing industry of profiting off prisoners contributes to these problems.

Many people are in jail because of their addictions and because of mental health challenges. When we don’t treat people adequately outside jail and then punish them inside for mental health problems by denying medication, what help are people supposed to get for these problems? How are they supposed to get better and change and stop gong to jail?

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In many cases, the end result of being cut off or improperly medicated is solitary confinement. People with mental health problems are therefore being pushed into a cycle where they can’t get medication, they experience severe symptoms as a result, and these symptoms result in them being unable to “control” their behaviour, they end up in solitary as punishment, and solitary confinement intensifies their symptoms, and leaves even more severe effects including uncontrollable rage, hallucinations, difficulty socializing, problems focusing, self harm, suicidal thoughts, and other mental and emotional effects that people report as changing them permanently.

And in severe cases, people may end up harming staff or other inmates not because they choose to be violent, but because they are experiencing withdrawal symptoms beyond their control.

One person told me that he is strip-searched every time he goes for a methadone dose. Again, there is an understandable concern about methadone being brought back onto the ranges, but patients shouldn’t have to undergo humiliating and degrading procedures daily to get a needed medication — especially when people struggling with addiction are already so highly stigmatized and have frequently experienced being dehumanized. For incarcerated women who experience high rates of sexual violence, being strip-searched can be a retraumatizing experience. Many women who are addicts have also experienced sexual violence specifically in relation to drugs (being coerced into sexual acts in “exchange” for drugs, for example), so being stripped in this context is particularly triggering.

While Kronfli asserts in the article that everyone is evaluated within three days, when I checked this claim, I was told that while in theory this is true, the reality is that being evaluated is no guarantee of actually receiving treatment. One person had been told that it would be five-to-six weeks before he could get his medication. Other jails have the reputation of cutting people off cold turkey. In the “new jail” in Pictou, for example, I have heard frequent allegations that people are taken off their medication on intake and then re-evaluated. I haven’t checked this claim with medical staff, but this is treated as “common knowledge” among incarcerated people.

There is also little consistency in how people are assessed. While being cut off medication or not being able to access medication is clearly a serious problem, another problem is also that often people are prescribed medication for every problem.

Anybody would be anxious, depressed and have trouble sleeping when they are arrested and in a frightening environment. Because there aren’t adequate counselling services, the solution when people report anxiety or insomnia or depression is to give them medication. Often people have not had good access to medical care on the outside and may not be properly diagnosed. It’s obviously not easy for the limited staff in these conditions to provide treatment, but the result is often that people are simply given pills, and the perception by incarcerated people is that they are being medicated to keep them controlled. Women prisoners in particular are often given powerful mood-altering drugs to “subdue” them. In some cases, when people get federal sentences and there is more time for evaluation, they are completely re-diagnosed and the medication they are on is found to be inappropriate.

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One person, for example, had been given “sleepers” for years, and it was only in a move to a new facility that he was diagnosed with PTSD, which was the cause of his sleeping problems.

Another problem is that people don’t necessarily feel they can be honest with medical staff. Many people feel that admitting to mental health problems would get them harsher sentences because they would be seen as unstable or dangerous. Because staff have to report things like illegal drug use, it’s hard for people to get treatment.

The problem with administering medication in jails obviously is much bigger than just the institution. When we don’t adequately fund mental health treatment, many people can’t get care or proper diagnoses, which is often why people end up in jail in the first place. Often people self-medicate with illegal drugs to try to manage mental health problems on their own.

When we criminalize addiction, then our jails are going to be filled with people with addiction problems. When people suffer poverty and trauma and generational violence and racism that mean they don’t get the same access to care as other people, and then we criminalize people as a result, our jails are going to be full of people with mental health problems. When we over-incarcerate people instead of treating them, our jails are going to be overcrowded and it’s going to be harder to control drugs. When we aren’t funding counsellors and adequate medical staff and enough psychiatrists in our jails, then how do we expect people to get care?

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I’ve sat in court and heard judges tell people some variation of “just stop committing crimes!” But when our solution is to put people in jail and then not treat them and then release them with even more issues, then what result are we expecting?

People in jail already are the most marginalized. In many cases their education, employment, relationships, housing, safety have already been compromised because of poverty, colonialism, trauma, addiction, and mental illness. At the very, very least, if we are going to make jail the place where we put mentally ill and addicted people, we could at a minimum make sure that they can at least get medication and treatment when they are there.

2. On the Deaths of Women in Custody

Also on CBC, Shaina Luck looks at the deaths of two women in Nova Institution.

In 1990, the Task Force on Federally Sentenced Women released the Creating Choices report. This report was intended to address the different realities of women in the federal system. The vast majority of women are not incarcerated for violent crimes. Ninety-two per cent of Indigenous women who are federally sentenced have been victims of sexual assault. The report argued that:

The long term goal is preventive. By reducing inequities which limit choice, by preventing violence which breeds violence, our long-term goal will reduce the pain which contributes to behaviour which harms others. By encouraging preventive strategies which create meaningful choices for federally sentenced women, we will help reduce crime and increase choices for all Canadians. In the process, our society will become a safer and more secure place.

It called for empowerment and mutual respect and support for women in federal institutions. It recognized the trauma women, and particularly Indigenous women, have experienced before prison. The report recognized the impact of colonialism on Indigenous women. It recognized that inequities that women experience. It pointed out that women are low-risk offenders, but a high-needs population, and that programs and institutions for women should be based around women’s needs.

More than 25 years after the release of this report, reading the article on CBC shows how little has actually changed in the treatment of women in prison. Camille Strickland-Murphy, despite cutting her face and setting herself on fire was “disciplined” rather than given treatment:

Her family also says that after the self-immolation incident, Strickland-Murphy was reclassified as a maximum security prisoner, although CSC social workers said she would be better treated in a mental health unit and presented a low risk.

Image of Camille Strickland-Murphy (left) from
Image of Camille Strickland-Murphy (left) from

Men who are classified as maximum security inmates are men who are convicted of murder, who have multiple violent offences, who are considered to be gang members, or who are judged to be uncontrollable in lower-security facilities (fights, bringing in contraband, etc.). Of course, Black and Indigenous prisoners are also over-represented in maximum facilities.

Women, on the other hand, are given maximum security classifications for self-harm — for being a risk to themselves. While men generally have a record of violent behaviour (either violent crime or a record of institutional violence) that leads to a maximum security classification, non-violent women are being placed in maximum units. While men who kill multiple women aren’t designated as dangerous offenders, women who only act out violently due to the conditions of their incarceration are considered dangerous.

Just as in the death of Ashley Smith, the “disciplinary” measures taken by institutions don’t help women. Over and over again we have seen women who enter prison on non-violent offences being labeled unmanageable by institutions and put on regimes that only intensify and escalate their conditions.

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In the case of Veronica Park as described in the article, mental health issues and isolation from her child, her family and her community — there are only five federal institutions for women, meaning that Nova Institution houses women from across the entire Atlantic region — contributed to her trading medication and crushing and inhaling other women’s pills. As I discussed in the previous story, this was treated as a disciplinary issue and she was punished rather than treated:

While Park was initially classified as a medium security inmate, her family says in November 2014 she was reclassified and segregated as a maximum security inmate. This meant that she was no longer permitted to see her mother, sisters or son, which her family says contributed further to her declining mental health.

Image of Veronica Park from
Image of Veronica Park from

Correctional Services Canada identifies “Positive family one of the prime factors in the successful reintegration of offenders.” The 1992 Corrections and Conditional Release Act gives prisoners the right to visits, subject to reasonable limitations:

In order to promote relationships between inmates and the community, an inmate is entitled to have reasonable contact, including visits and correspondence, with family, friends and other person from outside the penitentiary, subject to such reasonable limits as are prescribed for protecting the security of the penitentiary or the safety of persons.

In practice, though, institutions frequently limit visits, sometimes arbitrarily. Everything from supposed hits on the drug scanner, to suspicion of bringing in contraband, to other “security” reasons can be used to deny visits. Women are already less likely than men to be supported by family (while men are often supported by women throughout incarceration and his children will often be cared for by family, a woman who is imprisoned will frequently lose access to her children, and have little family support), and are much more likely to be further from home than men because of the limited number of federal institutions for women. While being in a maximum unit should not be a reason to deny visits which prisoners are entitled to, visiting is still seen by institutions as a privilege rather than a right.

Sherene Razack has written about the deaths of Indigenous people in custody. One of the patterns she identifies in inquests into Indigenous deaths is that the Indigenous body is viewed as “vulnerable” and just naturally weaker. Conditions like pneumonia are seen to be a problem in the Indigenous body that has nothing to do with the institution or a failure in care:

Inquests into the death of Aboriginal people in custody have typically framed the circumstances surrounding death as a timely rather than untimely death, parsing the story of its violent elements. The story of timely death gains coherence through representations of Aboriginal people as possessing a pathological frailty that is more often than not associated with alcohol abuse. If Aboriginal people are a dying race and a people unable to enter modern life, then they are people that no one can really harm or repair. Despite evidence of a persistent failure to care on the part of medical professionals and the police, inquests generally conclude that no one can be held accountable for the deaths of Aboriginal people in custody. Each inquest must establish anew how much beyond saving Aboriginal people actually are and how little can be done for them.

Veronica Park was not given treatment for mental illness, disciplined by being placed into the maximum unit, separated from her family, and then denied adequate medical care. These are not separate events: her death from pneumonia cannot be separated from the institutional measures that placed her into circumstances where she developed and did not get treatment for pneumonia.

Too often, being placed into a maximum unit is a death sentence for women. Justice Louise Arbour described women in prison as the “most damaged women in Canada.” Most women are not in prison because they have done violent things, but because violent things have been done to them. Women in prison make up a hugely disproportionate amount of self-harm incidents. Women are treated as though they are “acting out” when they are ill and suffering. And while the bar for men’s behaviour is usually actual violence, women are subjected to gendered ideas of behaviour where being a “disorderly” or “disruptive” woman is given the same harsh discipline as being a man who violently attacks a guard.

Perhaps because women are held to such narrow standards of “feminine” and “acceptable” behaviour in wider society, women in prison are given punishments for seeming to deviate from “appropriate” behaviour even when the only person they are hurting is themselves. It seems like the punishment is motivated by being a “bad woman,” just as women suffer all kinds of consequences in society for not conforming to ideals of what a woman should be. Women’s pain is invisible, and a suffering woman must just be making trouble. And a trouble making woman apparently deserves to die, or at least, brings her own death on herself.

3. Cat Fest!

“On August 6 from 10am to 4pm the Museum of Natural History will celebrate International Cat Day with the return of an event of feline proportions!

There will be lots of great events, crafts and more. Visitors are encouraged to wear costumes and spend the day at the Museum. Cat Fest is included in regular Museum Admission and Free for Museum Pass Holders.”

I’m going to go dressed up as a drug dealer!


“300 Felines will host family activities including a “Teddy Bear Clinic”, origami station, photo booth and more!”

Fucking bears. Get your own fest.

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. Do your best to stay out of any Government administration, they are ill equipped to support you as a citizen (guilty or not). Do not present as anything but wealthy, confident, smiling and friendly. Do not display emotion when dealing with this administration. I find that retreating into the pain to be the best, least reactive method. Explore the pain, live with the pain, that is what we got! We are rich in our sorrow, so we must start selling it off!

  2. The death, by ignorance, of Ashley Smith eight years ago, was a huge news story. She probably would not have died if prison employed doctors they don’t have who could fast-track her to a facility they also don’t have! The horrific details of this young, non-murderous lady got lots of publicity and woke people up for a long minute. Last November. Prime Minister Trudeau directed his Justice Minister to implement plans to abolish long-term solitary confinement for vulnerable prisoners. Ashley Smith became headline news because her family made it so. Veronica Park’s death due to pneumonia while in isolation received much less mainstream coverage. Minister of Justice Jody Wilson-Raybould has orders from our PM to at least address the solitary confinement. How can that happen with no medical counsel at the door? It CAN’T happen without prison hospital facilities employing MANY doctors and racially equal counsel from the get-go. Especially can’t happen when inductees have no medical records they can pay to own.

  3. An impassioned, well detailed article, thanks El.

    We would appear to be violating peoples’ rights to medically meccessary medication and mental health services.

    I wonder if because of that we might be subjecting prisoners who ‘act out’ etc. to extended solitary confinement which consitutes torture as defined by the UN (e.g. extended sensory deprivation)?

    If the Federal and Nova Scotia governments are denying Canadian prisoners their Charter rights and torturing them – all out of sight of the general public, of course – how do we bring such disgraceful practices to an end?

    Does it not have to happen by court challenges which have power over government both in the legislative sense and by shining a harsh spotlight on normal government practices? Even if many voters couldn’t care less about what happens to people in our jails, governments who claim to respect the law surely must.

    Remember what happened in the Shelburne School for Boys and the Nova Scotia School for Coloured Children out of public sight for decades. Remeber the huge emotional public outrage and the litigation costs that ultimately came out of all our pockets? Must we face all that agin?

    If there is little doubt this is happening and governmnets refuse to deal with it, the only recourse is throught the courts.

    So who would be willing to lead that?

  4. Great article, El. I like the Norwegian system of prison, where you first go to a relatively rehabilitation-oriented prison first, then if you behave badly you go to a prison that is not so different from Burnside. Of course, the problem is that crime is much rarer in Norway for some reason – the nice prisons are expensive!

  5. Articles are revealing. The standards by which men and women are classified or re-classified indicates that there are some ‘pat answers’ for inmates viewed as problems.
    Is it too much to expect that any inmate’s medical records precede her or him to the receiving institution? Is it too much to ask that proper protocols for drug administration be in place and not withdrawn except in extreme situations? Is it to the point yet where the justice minister du jour calls for a broad inquiry into the practices in our jails? Is there a Freeman Panel for justice just “around the cell block!”

  6. El, your columns are why I subscribe to the Examiner.
    I envy you watching the Olympics with your mother 🙂

  7. EI, you are an incredible writer. I was deeply touched by your stories of the women in prison…………..leaves me feeling so angry and sad that women in prison, and in fact all prisoners are treated with such little – if any – respect. Keep writing and exposing the wrongs that exist in NS – there are many!