Life at Burnside has ‘only become harder’ amid pleas for change, says inmate

An inmate at Nova Scotia’s largest jail says life inside the facility has only gotten worse in recent months despite a public plea for better conditions and attempts to challenge lockdowns in court

The Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Dartmouth, better known as the Burnside jail, has kept inmates in their cells for all but one hour of the day, sometimes for days or weeks at a time. 

“It’s just pretty hard on the head, especially with staying in contact with family, everyone’s worried,” an inmate told CBC Radio’s Information Morning. “Just imagine being locked in your bedroom for 23 hours out of the day.

“We’re all being penalized for something when none of us have done anything wrong.”

CBC News has agreed not to identify the man because he fears he’ll be targeted by correctional officers for speaking out.

A vicious cycle

While several inmates have gone to court over the lockdowns, arguing it violates their charter rights, management at the jail has said guards needed to take action because inmates were yelling death threats.

But the inmate who spoke to CBC News said Burnside is relying on lockdowns because guards are afraid of overseeing large numbers of inmates as part of a new direct-supervision model which involves arranging cells around a living area where staff are stationed.

He said going to court has become a waste of time because whenever inmates get in front of a judge, the facility lifts the lockdown and the case is dismissed. 

“Then within days after the judge refused to hear the case because we’ve been unlocked, the facility relocks the units down … It’s like a loophole that they escape the habeas corpus application,” he said.

“It just continues and continues and it’s been going on for a while.”

The province’s Department of Justice said direct supervision is widely considered best practice and allows for early intervention before incidents escalate. 

Activist El Jones says it’s time for a full inquiry into the conditions at Burnside Jail. (Rob Short/CBC)

El Jones, a prisoners’ rights activist, said keeping inmates in their cells in this way is “worse than solitary confinement.”

“As they’re held in these conditions, they get anxiety, they get depression, they’re experiencing mental health problems, that causes problems with the staff,” she said.

“And the whole atmosphere and culture of the jail gets more and more violent, more and more stressful and then the response is to lock people down even more and the cycle continues.”

Inmates being strip-searched, says advocate 

She said she’s heard from some inmates that they’re being strip-searched, sometimes repeatedly throughout the day. 

“You’re talking about lifting your genitals and bending over and all of that happening, and that’s happening to them six or seven times every day just to go to court and that is illegal under both the Corrections Act and the Human Rights Act,” she said. 

The inmate who spoke to CBC News wants the public to know that things are no better despite a peaceful protest that began in August. (Robert Short/CBC)

The Justice Department said strip-searches are only conducted when an inmate goes to court and returns to the jail. Suggestions that strip-searches are happening upward of seven times per transfer to and from court are false, the department said.

Jones said none of the demands inmates made during a peaceful protest in August has been met and she wants a full inquiry into how the jail is being run. 

The inmate who spoke to CBC News said the situation has “only become harder on the people incarcerated.”

“It’s not like anyone is looking for some handout or leniency, we’re just looking to be treated fairly while we’re incarcerated.”

Improvements implemented

Heather Fairbairn, a spokesperson for the Justice Department, acknowledged in an email Wednesday that “correctional facilities can be challenging environments in which to live and work.” 

However, she pointed to a number of improvements that have been made to Burnside over the last year, including upgrades to its heating and cooling systems, better food, and increased access to mental health and addictions programming. There is also a greater emphasis on staff training, especially where mental health is concerned, she said. 

“We are focused on doing things differently and being more responsive to the needs of inmates and staff,” Fairbairn wrote. 

“Correctional Services is an ever-evolving environment and we continue to work … to ensure that inmates are treated with respect while getting the support, safety and security that is required while in custody.”

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