Several days after Bonnie Welsh’s brother was taken into custody at the Burnside jail, she received a distressed call from him inside the facility.
“I broke down crying on the phone because I could just hear how much pain he was in and the withdrawal he was in,” Welsh said.
“How they can just put somebody in a cell and leave them like that in the correctional centre is just beyond me.”
Welsh says her brother, Shawn St. Claire McOnie, has battled addiction and mental health issues his entire life, adding he suffered sexual abuse and trauma at a young age and has been struggling with substance issues and the criminal justice system ever since.
McOnie, 44, was arrested and charged for a string of robberies in the Halifax-area. But at some point prior to being taken into custody, he suffered a significant fall.
By the time he got placed into a jail cell, Welsh says his physical injuries caused by the fall were starting to cause him severe pain, to the point where he could barely walk.
“I guess his knee is like three or four times the size as normal. His back is all tore up. They won’t give him his methadone,” she said.
But the clinical director for offender health services in Nova Scotia defends the health-care access inmates have at the Burnside facility.
Dr. Risk Kronfli says when someone is admitted to the facility, they “automatically” undergo a full medical and psychiatric assessment, if they are capable, meaning they consent to the assessment and aren’t incapacitated due to a substance.
As for a specific timeline relating to when imprisoned people can access an assessment or other medical services, Dr. Kronfli says that varies based on circumstance.
“I guess the devil is in the details, it depends what you mean by timely,” he says.
On weekends, Dr. Kronfli says there are a physician and psychiatrists on call. Nursing staff can connect with them to have orders drawn up, or if an “urgent” assessment is required, the physician or psychiatrist will come in.
Harry Critchley, a law student and prisoner rights advocate with the East Coast Prison Justice Society, says under Canadian and International law, “prisoners are supposed to receive the same standard of care and have the same rights as the rest of Canadians.”
Critchley says, based on his experience leading focus groups with inmates and conducting research, health care is a significant issue among inmates — particularity on the weekends, when there is minimal medical staff on-site and when it comes to maintaining access to prescriptions.
“I’ve personally known people and in our capacity with East Coast Prison Justice, advocated on behalf of prisoners, who when they went in, had a prescription medication that was ceased from them and then not returned to them for some time, until they were able to see a medical staff at the facility,” he said.
Dr. Kronfli says anyone who is in “dire need” of urgent medical care on the weekends receives it.
“If there is a need, the physician would immediately be there at the facility to do the assessment themselves,” he said.
Critchley says health-care rights for prisoners is a nationwide — and North American — issue.
He points to the 2018 solidarity strike that was held in prisons across North America, including Burnside, where prisoners asked for more timely access to their medication and to medical tests and for better access to specialists and care for chronic conditions.
Dr. Kronfli says the correctional facility follows provincial guidelines for opioid replacement therapy, such as methadone.
He says any inmate who is in need of methadone or other opioid replacement prescriptions will have their medication resumed once it’s confirmed by their prescriber and dependent on if they’ve missed a dose or not.
Welsh says for homeless people dealing with addictions, like her brother, missing a dose of methadone can be common, especially if you’re being taken into custody.
Dr. Kronfli says a methadone clinic is held once a week for inmates who need further assessment.
In Welsh’s opinion, her brother is an example of how health-care issues and the justice system overlap in a way that works against people being successfully rehabilitated.
“That’s what causes the revolving door syndrome. I know that he broke the law but he’s still a human being.”