Prisoner rights group denounces frequent lockdowns, lack of time outside in N.S. jails

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Lockdowns, lack of time outside for inmates are among a series of issues raised by the East Coast Prison Justice Society. (Shutterstock - image credit)
Lockdowns, lack of time outside for inmates are among a series of issues raised by the East Coast Prison Justice Society. (Shutterstock - image credit)

Inmates in some Nova Scotia jails are spending too much time locked in their cells, often without being able to go outside for weeks, according to a report released Monday from a prisoner advocacy group.

Findings in the report from the East Coast Prison Justice Society are based on interviews and phone calls with inmates at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Dartmouth and the Northeast Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in New Glasgow.

"We have a concentration of some of our most marginalized community members and we're subjecting them to conditions that exceed what most people could not even imagine in their wildest dreams in terms of the harms to health and human rights," said Sheila Wildeman, a co-chair of the society.

Representatives of the group made one in-person visit to the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility, commonly known as the Burnside jail, where they talked to more than 40 inmates in February 2020.

After the pandemic hit, the organization set up a phone line and voicemail for inmates to call and explain their issues.

Blair Rhodes/CBC
Blair Rhodes/CBC

The report identifies jail lockdowns as a major problem, pointing to accounts from inmates last year that they were being kept in their cells sometimes for days.

"Lockdowns perpetuate huge mental health issues. Keeping them locked down has been found to create agitation, impulsive decision-making, depression and anxiety," said the group's project director, Hanna Garson.

The report includes a quote from one inmate who called the society's phone line from the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility.

"I feel like I'm in the hole," the inmate said. "Ninety per cent of my day I'm locked in my cell ... You're supposed to get out for two hours, but half the time you don't get out.... It's just crazy."

While acknowledging the COVID-19 pandemic created operational issues, Garson said that could not be used as an explanation for the use of lockdowns or for the limited access to time outside.

"Many of these issues existed before the pandemic, so I'm not sure how much we can blame this on COVID. I think it's a convenient scapegoat," Garson said.

Some inmates said they waited almost two months for time outside or for access to indoor recreation time in the gym, according to the report, which makes 43 recommendations related to exercise, cleanliness, communication issues, and concerns surrounding strip-searches, racism and health care.

Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press
Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press

The report includes a response from the then superintendent of the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility, who cited staffing shortages as an issue that contributed to the frequency of lockdowns.

The superintendent, who is not named in the report, made note of a plan to recruit new staff, as well as implementing a new staffing structure and shift pattern.

Superintendent 'personally attends to issues raised'

On the complaints about the lack of time outside, the superintendent is quoted is saying the jail "continued to provide access to outdoor time in keeping with the Correctional Services Act and the Correctional Services policy and procedures."

The report also makes mention of the fact the superintendent said he "visits every unit and meets with every prisoner on a regular basis, and personally attends to issues raised."

The 55-page annual report also addresses racism toward Black and Indigenous inmates.

"The impression of Black prisoners was that they were treated worse and they were referring to being hit with disciplinary infractions or time in segregation," said Wildeman.

"We also heard from Indigenous prisoners' concerns about access to smudging and the honouring of their spiritual commitments."

The report notes the majority of adults in provincial jails are being held in pretrial custody and have not been convicted of a crime.

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