850 words; 4 minutes to read
Audio summary courtesy of volunteer Gillian Sherman.
Summary: A report by the East Coast Prison Justice Society shows that there are serious and persistent problems with conditions in Nova Scotia jails, exacerbated by Covid.
Provincial jails in Canada hold quite a few more prisoners (about 23,000 at any given time) than do federal prisons (about 15,000). And the great majority of these prisoners are being held on remand, so they are legally innocent. Provincial jails often also have worse conditions than do federal prisons. Yet there is a lot more oversight and scrutiny of federal prisons than of provincial jails. While the federal system often hides information and makes access difficult, these conditions are worse in provincial systems, where there is usually very little oversight.
A notable exception is the work of the Visiting Committee of the East Coast Prison Justice Society, which for the past couple of years has produced an annual report on conditions in Nova Scotia jails for men. ‘The core of the VC’s work involves engaging with prisoners in men’s units of Nova Scotia’s provincial correctional facilities to identify systemic concerns about conditions of confinement and then bringing these concerns to the attention of jail administration and the public…’
However, since the start of Covid, all visits and volunteer activities were suspended, so the most recent report was based primarily on phone calls from prisoners to a free phone line.
Nova Scotia jail situation
Nova Scotia has a relatively low incarceration rate compared to other provinces, and it was dramatically reduced in the early days of Covid, but has now crept up again. As is the case across Canada, Black and Indigenous people are substantially over-represented. About ¾ of those in Nova Scotia jails are on remand, meaning they are charged but have not been found guilty.
The starting point for the East Coast Prison Justice Society is ‘that a whole-of-government approach must be taken to foster and sustain community-based alternatives to pre-trial detention and to support other initiatives preventive of criminalization and incarceration. That is, the only way to curtail the enormous individual and social costs of ongoing harms to health and human rights of people incarcerated in provincial jails during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic is to reduce reliance on incarceration and redirect resources from punitive measures to constructive, preventive, community-based supports addressing the social determinants of criminalization and incarceration.’
The specific issues in the VC report are familiar to anyone who knows about jails and federal prisons across Canada. In this report they include
– Excessive use of solitary confinement. The system made 14 days in quarantine a requirement for all new admissions in 2020. The report also notes extensive use of medical care as a justification to place prisoners in prolonged segregation. Overall ‘experience of close confinement has been intensified and distributed across the entire prisoner population in the time of COVID-19’. Further, ‘We maintain that people incarcerated in Nova Scotia jails are not accorded basic constitutional guarantees relating to solitary confinement’.
– Extended Covid restrictions have also limited movement, visits, programs, and many other of the features that make existence in jail possible. The ‘relentless intensity and frequency of lockdowns is producing unprecedented levels of desperation and despair among provincially incarcerated people in Nova Scotia. Some callers referenced fellow prisoners’ suicide attempts and some described their own suicide attempts. We heard about how these incidents resulted in further time in isolation under suicide watch’.
– Poor access to health care, with long waits to get care of, in some cases, prisoner health complaints being ignored entirely. Any time there is a fear of suicide, prisoners are placed in extremely restrictive conditions – a practice common all across Canada that can only worsen any one’s mental health.
– Limited access to exercise, showers, phone calls and fresh air – again often ascribed to Covid – along with unhygienic conditions and rodent infestations. Even after visits began again, 18 months after they were stopped, they were limited to 1 per week, and 1 person per visit.
– Problems in access to legal counsel and legal resources, or access in ways that are not confidential. Prisoners were not allowed to make free phone calls to private lawyers. Calls were limited to 20 minutes. Mail from lawyers was opened by staff. These are all violations of a fundamental right to legal representation.
– Covid was also being used to justify measures such as removing entitlements to disciplinary hearings.
– Racism and discrimination manifested in many aspects of the operation. In particular, as elsewhere in Canada, Indigenous and Black prisoners were seen to be subject to unfair treatment in many ways.
These problems are not new; serious problems in Nova Scotia institutions were noted by the provincial auditor in 2018.
A few positive developments
The report also identifies 3 positive developments – reduced use of strip searching, an increase in access to bail support (though still insufficient to meet the needs), and use of tablets in one facility to facilitate visits (which were suspended due to Covid).
Nonetheless, their conclusion is that ‘… jail has become increasingly hard for many reasons, including prolonged suspension of human rights and basic entitlements of correctional law’, often ascribed to Covid measures. This report reinforces a central point that runs through all independent investigations of jails and prisons – that where some people exercise great power over others with little scrutiny there will inevitably be abuses, including non-compliance with basic rights of all Canadians.
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