On Sunday, the Halifax Examiner published a statement written by prisoners at the Burnside jail. The prisoners say they are embarking on a non-violent protest in solidarity with their counterparts in U.S. prisons; however, the Burnside prisoners have their own set of demands.

To get the perspective of the guards at the jail, El Jones interviewed Jason MacLean, the president of the NSGEU and a correctional officer himself. 

NSGEU president Jason MacLean. Photo: Halifax Examiner

I have respect for those who, in a peaceful way, give notice of what they want. I commend the inmates for this.

About the Demands

Let’s get down to the numbered demands.

First of all, my members understand what’s happening and why it’s happening, and in some instances, they agree, and in some instances, they don’t necessarily disagree, but there’s operational aspects, and people are trying to envision how this could be done.

Better Health Care

I think everybody has a right to health care. We should all have better health care. I would make the argument that those that are incarcerated have access to better health care than most Nova Scotians do.

I see what they’re saying, that they want to have more access, but that’s a hard thing, I believe, to sell to the public of Nova Scotia considering hardly anyone has a doctor anymore, and the acuity level of people in care who are being pushed out of hospitals as well. And we’ve got homecare in shambles.

These are things that we’re trying to focus on as a union, and we support people wanting better health care, but me looking at it through a correctional officer’s lens, that’s a hard sell to others who don’t have it as well.

I consider this a more nuanced look at things, just trying to be realistic with what we have, although I don’t negate the need or the want for better health care.

Rehabilitation Programs

Myself and my members agree 100 per cent — more programs are needed. People shouldn’t be warehoused.

Currently, we’ve been pushing as NSGEU for programs. One of the arguments (and you can go back to other media interviews that I’ve done) is that you can’t take direct supervision and implement it in Nova Scotia without implementing the entirety of direct supervision, and one key aspect of that is rehabilitation programs.

Now, the programs that are going to be offered is six programs, which is one more than was being offered before. People have been trained. It’s just a question of getting to the delivery of them. I can’t speak for the employer, when they’re going to implement it, but I have members that have been trained to train other staff members, and they’re chomping at the bit to get to it.

I do believe that’s supposed to start up in September — not the programs for inmates, but the actual programs to train trainers will be delivered to the staff.

It’s like putting the cart before the horse: they [Corrections] want to implement these programs, but they also want to put bodies in a certain area, as opposed just implementing direct supervision in its full form.

That is one thing we back 100 per cent. We believe rehabilitation programs are a must.

Exercise Equipment

I would look as exercise equipment as something that has been promised to the offenders. And I would say, not necessarily all exercise equipment, but at least chin-up bars in the day room, and I don’t believe that that’s been fulfilled.

That’s a frustration. And we share most frustrations that offenders have, because we’re living it with them. We’re in there all day, for the whole shift, many shifts at a time, most times beyond our shift, because right now there’s a staffing crisis at the facility.

Myself, Jason Maclean, am of two minds. I worked in Cape Breton in 1998, when we had an escape of five offenders, and they escaped using the free weights. I was in the yard when some of the weight equipment was being used against us. That’s why in some facilities, you see the machines that are stationary.

So I’m of two minds. People need that for their own sanity, as a stress release, and for physical and mental health. It’s something that’s needed, but it needs to be worked out as to what it’s going to be, and that’s a conversation that needs to happen with Correctional Services.

Contact Visits

This is something that we look at as something that could be used as an incentive. It could be something to achieve.

We all know the different levels that people are classified, and the different freedoms they have when they are incarcerated. We see this as something that, when people are written up, they wouldn’t have contact visits, but if they were incident-free for an amount of time, they could get contact visits.

Contact visits could be a good thing, recognizing the current staffing crisis, and also recognizing that contact visits will require more staffing and more resources. That is a good  question that I’m eager to see the Department [of Justice] answer.

It’s something we’re not against. It does mention the body scanners in there, but I don’t see the body scanners as a reason [to institute contact visits]. I see it as more of an incentive to not get in trouble. As you know, idle hands are the worst.

I see contact visits as something that could be beneficial to any facility, but I know it needs to be operationally feasible.

Personal Clothing And Shoes

I’ll tell you as an old, crusty correctional officer, I’m totally against that. And the reason why I’m totally against that is just the hierarchy in jails: people being muscled, somebody having a little extra dollars and going around with those Nikes. I might look at them and say, “They’re my Nikes now.”

That creates a whole other economy within the jail that’s not needed. Everybody looks the same, and people can treat each other for who they are, not what they have.

I just believe that is something that will cause more trouble in the facility. It would be good to have your own clothing, but because not everybody has equal resources, it will cause a whole other issues. We already see it with canteen.

Same Quality Food As Every Other Jail

Who wouldn’t want great food? I do know that at that facility, they switched to different a way than it been done at other facilities. What I hear, and I don’t work in all facilities, is that the food in that place is the worst. That’s what I’ve heard, but I can’t compare it. That’s something that on its face, everyone should have access to good quality food. That’s something that is for the Department to answer.

Air Circulation

I know one thing is, that’s something that has been on the docket for the new day rooms, and I believe has been started up in the past few days, but it’s something that’s not all over the facility. I’m interested to see what the employer is going to put in there. Everybody should have clean air.

Everybody is in that facility [working and living.] I do believe that is not an “ask” that’s out of order at all. That’s something people should have as a right.

Healthier Canteen

I can’t argue with that either. Speaking as someone who’s worked canteen in another facility, chips and pop and stuff like that is stuff that people choose. When I filled in as canteen officer, I actually went and polled people to see what they wanted, and they came to me with ideas on things, and I tried to get it.

Things have evolved over time, to where you could at least get some G2 or some protein bars – stuff you think is healthy.

Healthier options is something I could get behind, that I support.

No Limits to Visits

I see that being problematic, operationally. It’s not just a staffing issue; at facilities without staffing issues, that is an operational nightmare, having people be able to come in there at any time.

Face it, people are in jail, they’re incarcerated, they’re actually taken away from society for a certain amount of time. I get “innocent until proven guilty,” but when you’re in a jail, visits are provided, but for someone to have unlimited visits is ludicrous.

[The prisoners respond here as a point of clarity that they meant the limits of how many people they can have on their visiting lists and their ability to change those lists, not unlimited length or frequency of visits which they agree would not be possible.]

Access to the Library

Absolutely! People need to be able to have that escape, something to massage their minds, and help their mental health.

Not only that, but if they want to do some homework on their own case, they should have that chance.

There’s nothing wrong with people learning, and nothing wrong with having access. I do know that the attempt has been made in that facility to have better access, but I’m interested to see what the employer says about that.

About the current challenges with the changeover to direct supervision and the new dayrooms.

We’ve had many battles over the last few years. We’ve had pickets over direct supervision and how it was going to be implemented. The Department [of Justice] has decided that they want to go down the road they are going. We’ve done everything in our power to be a part of that, to work with it. Not everyone is crazy about direct supervision, but they do recognize that this is the direction which their employer is going.

What we’ve been kicking and screaming and yelling about the whole time is that we want input. We had this committee we worked on that came with a number of recommendations. One issue my members had was that, upon implementation of direct supervision late last week and early this week, when they arrived at the day rooms, they realized that it was very loud. They could hardly hear the radios. They put up with it for a few days, but they just couldn’t do their work, so they put up work refusals.

This disrupted the building, but they said they can’t hear what’s going on, and they need to be able to hear what’s going on in case something happens and people need to respond. They let the offenders know who were living in there. The decibel level was too high.

The Occupational Health and Safety Act states that, in the case of a work refusal, other people need to be told that there were refusals to replace somebody, and they would be removed from that location because it’s not safe for them.

That was all done, and as a result, they didn’t have enough people to run the area, so people got locked up.

Yesterday morning, the Occupational Health and Safety Committee met to resolve things. Monday the refusals happened, yesterday the committee met, and they came out to a resolve on how things would move forward. So the resolve is there.

Nobody’s happy. We understand the offenders aren’t happy. And we understand that things have been promised to them that they haven’t received yet. Upon their moving they were supposed to receive some things so we understand that they’re not happy.

My members are not happy. There’s a lot of people who are off at the moment. But there has been a fix, only because of the cooperation of the workers and management through the Occupational Health and Safety committee that this didn’t go over to the Department of Labour. So the fix is in place, and slowly the facility is being restored. And the offenders are being allowed out on a rotational basis.

I have to commend the inmates that are housed in the North Unit. They’re up against it, they are not happy, but yet they recognize the situation, and they recognize the situation that staff are in, and what the staff have to do to make it a safer place for everybody.

They’ve recognized this, and there’s been no trouble. People are not happy, but there’s been nobody acting out. And I just want to take the opportunity to thank all the staff that are working there and all the inmates that are working there while we’re dealing with this crisis.

I think it’s important people know that it’s not optimal in there for anybody, and inmates and staff are – it seems to me – working together to get through this crisis.

I think that needs to be noted, and I think that the employer needs to take action to make things better. It appears that the employer will take action, but I don’t know that they are fully informed or fully aware about the damage that this could do in the long run.

But staff and offenders are doing their part as the people that work and live in these conditions.

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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