A national prisoners’ advocate is praising a 20-day peaceful protest by inmates at a Halifax jail as a rare and effective tactic that sets an example for similar efforts at the country’s provincial lockups.
Inmates at Nova Scotia Central Correctional Facility, often called the Burnside jail, joined a prisoner strike in the United States on Aug. 21.
A group in the prison prepared and circulated their 10-point plan for basic improvements in health care, rehabilitation, exercise, visits, clothing, food, air quality and library access.
By the time the legislature resumed sitting on Thursday, the prisoners’ petitions had gained widespread media coverage and political responses as a group of advocates, lawyers and community leaders outside the facility circulated their requests.
The protest is set to conclude this weekend.
Kassandra Churcher, national executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, says the inmates’ strategy has been noticed nationally as an innovative way for provincial inmates to gain public and political attention for their grievances.
“This is unusual. It’s good to see that sense of community, solidarity and focus being prisoner-led,” she said in a telephone interview.
“It speaks to their ability to mobilize around their common concerns … It’s powerful,” she said.
Emma Halpern, the regional director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia, said the campaign has resonated because it has made requests ordinary citizens can relate to, such as better access to family visits.
The prisoners argue the visits should be possible given that recently purchased body scanners have drastically reduced the risk of contraband smuggling.
“I think most people would feel that mothers and children should have regular contact. It’s the best thing for our society and it’s essential for rehabilitation and reintegration,” said Halpern.
WATCH: Assault number rise at Burnside jail
Justice Minister Mark Furey responded to some of the items on the list on Thursday, and though he made few firm commitments, he told reporters “it’s important we have these discussions and ensure the rights of those incarcerated in our facility are respected.”
Asked about family visits, he said the body scanners have improved the security concerns and may open up an avenue for more visits.
“The opportunity to revisit the policy and determine what family visits may look like going forward is a real discussion,” he said.
He argued some of the prisoners’ complaints, such as the lack of sufficient air circulation amidst the summer heat wave, are being addressed as the facility is modernized to bring in so-called “direct supervision” – where guards work in closer contact with prisoners.
“The renovations with the direct supervision will address the air circulation issues that have been brought to our attention,” he said.
He disagreed with the prisoners’ criticisms of their food, saying, “the facility follows the Canada Food Guide. We’re providing nutritional meals in that environment.”
In addition, he said that there are no plans to agree to allowing a request for prisoners to have their own clothing due to security concerns around the potential of what he called a “micro economy” in the trade of clothing.
He said improvements are being considered for exercise facilities, while noting new outdoor “airing courts” for inmates are under construction, and they will include outdoor exercise equipment.
Regarding demands for more rehabilitation programs, the province issued a written release saying six new program officer positions have been created for the facility for this year, and that this fall more programs on addictions, emotion management and trauma will be delivered.
“Additionally, we are developing incentive-based programs for inmates as well as having conversations regarding the formation of an inmate committee at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility,” said the release.
The prisoners have asked for more timely access to their medication and to medical tests, and for better access to specialists and care for chronic conditions.
That has also drawn a response, though no formal commitment to change, from the province’s health authority.
Kristen Lipscombe, a spokeswoman for the Nova Scotia Health Authority, said in an email that “healthcare services in correctional facilities should be at the same standard/level as those services that are available in the community.”
“We will continue to monitor and respond to feedback we receive from individuals who are incarcerated. We will also continue to monitor our wait times and adjust as necessary with changes to an individual’s health status while they are incarcerated.”
She said with nurses delivering medications to offenders up to four times per day, one of the issues is the availability of correctional officers.
Sheila Wildman, a law professor at Dalhousie University’s Schulich School of Law, said in an interview the protest’s results remain uncertain.
“This was a success in terms of prisoners having managed, against all odds, to voice their concerns in a way that provoked public debate and awareness about the conditions of their confinement, and eventually provoked a formal government response,” said Wildman, who is a member of the advocacy group East Coast Prison Justice Society.
“But let’s wait and see what concrete initiatives come out of this before we pronounce on whether or how it was a success.”
Senator Kim Pate, who has participated in a national tour of Canadian prisons, says she believes the conditions in provincial jails are generating rising anger among inmates – and will bring similar prisoner actions elsewhere.
“Given the frustration of prisoners across the country, we may well see more such protests,” she wrote in an email.