A jail cell in the north wing of the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility. Photo: Halifax Examiner

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Prisoners and their families are raising alarms about the COVID-19 quarantine conditions at Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility (known as the Burnside Jail).

Reports from incarcerated people and their families recount a number of concerning issues, including: the use of solitary confinement conditions on the range designated for quarantine; lack of access to medical care; dirty and unhygienic conditions throughout the jail; a shortage of staff in the facility; and lack of access to legal phone calls.

These complaints depict a disturbing pattern of human rights violations at the institution.

Prisoners are given a COVID test when they enter the facility. However, incarcerated people report that this test can take up to 24 hours to be administered. While they are waiting for the test and for its results, they are held up to three days without access to a shower or a change of clothes.

Once they are released from this intake, prisoners are then sent to an assessment range where they are held for 14 days as a safety measure to prevent the spread of the illness in the facility. However, due to a lack of staff, multiple prisoners report that the restrictions on this range are “worse than lockdown.” Numerous people who lived on the range in the past months report being out of their cells less than an hour a day, often at times that leave them unable to make legal calls.

These conditions are particularly disturbing because the range exists as a health measure and not as a punishment. Both provincially and federally, the use of solitary confinement for extended time periods is being legally (and legislatively) challenged.

Solitary confinement is designated as torture by the United Nations when it lasts for more than 15 days. It is never recommended for people with disabilities or living with mental health challenges. With prisoners reporting an intake of up to three days and then 14 more days of close confinement, people are effectively living in these conditions beyond any legal and human rights recommendations.

In 2015, Dylan Gogan successfully challenged the use of “administrative segregation” at Burnside. People coming from federal prison to attend court were being held in segregation without any disciplinary charges. In his decision, Justice Gerald Moir wrote:

No rational interpretation of these words can lead to the conclusion that “close confinement” does not apply to a prisoner confined to his cell twenty-three hours a day. The line of thinking that restricts the rights of reviews to prisoners in the segregation unit is not within the range of rational interpretations of the Act and Regulations.

Prisoners at the facility also report long wait times of up to three months to see a doctor. While they are awaiting appointments, they describe being unable to access their prescriptions, even when they are able to provide information to the facility about their medication and their doctor.  Coupled with the harsh conditions, the interruption in medication is having severe effects upon the mental and physical health of people living in the facility.

Due to the staffing issues, even after they are released from quarantine, prisoners in the facility are experiencing long periods of confinement. On weekends, they are frequently locked up all day. Because there are not enough staff to supervise the yard, they are often not receiving the 30 minutes of outdoor exercise they are guaranteed under the Correctional Services Act.

A family member of someone currently incarcerated in Burnside reached out to the Halifax Examiner to share her concerns about conditions. In a letter to the Examiner confirming the issues with confinement reported by prisoners, she also detailed the problems of contact with loved ones in the facility:

There is currently a strict “no-visitors” policy at the facility due to COVID-19 and in place of visits with loved ones, Burnside has implemented 15 minute video-calls once a week. If you’re lucky enough to get a time slot. On one range there is around 30 or so men — their video-call day is on Mondays. There are 9 time slots available.

…This entire system is extremely classist and ageist. The email stating you’ve been approved to a video-call comes with a link to a separate app you must download and set up an account for. Many older civilians would have a very difficult time setting this system up alone, at home during quarantine.

…All too many civilians aren’t able to afford the technology it requires for them to see an inmate/ loved one and due to COVID-19 restrictions, the public doesn’t have access to libraries that offer these technologies for free. Many people are able to get on a bus or hitch a ride to the correctional facility for normal face-to-face visits, but not everyone is able to follow through with confusing video-calls, which are not supported by the facility in terms of trouble shooting.

Prisoners also describe conditions in many areas of the jail, including health segregation (where prisoners suffering from injury or illness are sent), as “dirty” and “unliveable.” There are reports of mice infestations, mold, dirt, and feces and other human waste throughout the facility. This raises the question: even as prisoners are being held in lockdown conditions supposedly to stop the spread of illness, why is the facility itself taking no serious measures to ensure that it is regularly cleaned?

The family member who wrote to the Examiner concluded her letter with the following words:

I am aware that the Burnside is taking (minuscule) steps to reduce the spread of COVID-19 within the facility, but again, I’m wondering, at what cost? Inclusive programs (AA, group therapy, anger management) and societal integration programs have all come to a halt, inmates are generally restricted from visits with loved ones, cell confinement seems to be at an all time high for non-disciplinary reasons, the right to time outside/exercise is reduced to zero most days and in turn it’s leaving inmates extremely aggravated and feeling helpless during a global pandemic.

In my mind, the facility’s job is to keep their internal society flowing, making sure human rights are met, and inmates are “in-the-know’” during an already confusing time. It seems that they’re currently using it as an excuse for more power, more unexplained lock-ups, more shoulder shrugs and all with something to blame. Like other terrible events that happen in this world, COVID-19 is about banding together as a society to protect everyone, and like usual, inmates are turned to the outskirts of town and not included in that belief. They receive the bare minimum regardless of guilt or innocence.

East Coast Prison Justice Society sent a letter to the Department of Justice, Public Health, and the Human Rights Commission on August 26 outlining these concerns. The province has not yet responded. Harry Critchley, the Society’s co-chair, emphasized:

We continue to assert that jail can never be safe or healthy, whether during a pandemic or not. As we have repeatedly argued since the beginning of this pandemic, all medical and legal expertise demonstrates that public health is best served not by incarcerating people on “COVID ranges,” but by resourcing social supports and housing in the community. It is disappointing that the province has cut housing subsidies that allowed people to live in the community at a fraction of the cost, while failing to create conditions at Burnside that in any way balance community health concerns with rights. We repeat again our call to release as many prisoners as possible and to re-think our reliance on punishment and confinement. 

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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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