In April, as COVID-19 cases spiked in Nova Scotia, the province took drastic measures to reduce the number of prisoners in custody, cutting the number of prisoners down by about half to 250 inmates.
But now, more prisoners are again being funnelled back into jail, something the East Coast Prison Justice Society is raising flags about.
“We can respect prisoners’ basic human rights while continuing the fight against COVID-19,” Sheila Wildeman, co-chair of the East Coast Prison Justice Society, said.
In the most recent count, 334 people are in custody, of which 75 percent are awaiting trial, the ECPJS said.
“Currently among the problems we are seeing are spikes in in-custody rates over the weekends,” Wildeman said. “As police drop people off at the jails to await video conference bail proceedings, early the next week.”
Keeping some people in jail awaiting trial is not necessary, Wildeman said, suggesting there needs to a more concerted effort to redirect resources from jails into community programming.
Community programming and support agencies like the John Howards Society and the Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia help criminalized men and women find social supports and assist them with reintegration into the community.
Supporting and using community agencies like this can help those awaiting trial keep up with their demands from the justice system and also keep people out of the congregated jail setting, lessening the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak.
“You see a lot of movement in and out (of correctional facilities) on the part of the staff and as well as prisoners and that too makes Covid mitigation a challenge,” Wildeman said.
Those incarcerated in Nova Scotia jails are predominantly people from marginalized communities and include many vulnerable people living with underlying health issues, Wildeman said, and that makes them more susceptible to serious illness or even death from COVID-19
In a statement, the Nova Scotia Department of Justice says correctional services have a comprehensive COVID-19 prevention plan in place and they continue to work closely with public health to maintain a safe environment for inmates and staff in provincial facilities.
“While in-person visitation and access to some programming and activities have been impacted as a result of the public health restrictions, we continue to ensure the rights of individuals are respected and supported,” Department of Justice spokesperson Heather Fairbairn said. “Provisions are in place to ensure that contact with loved ones and legal counsel are maintained. ”
The province said it has also increased the number of phones in its facilities and provides all inmates with one free phone call per day, as well as expanded virtual access to include video chats as an alternative to in-person visitation.
But advocates said that’s not enough, and ongoing public health restrictions mean inmates are facing longer periods of self-isolation.
Wildeman said while in-person visits are restricted and access to phone and video calls are harder to secure, the conditions are becoming a human rights concern.
“Prisoners are experiencing intensely restrictive conditions, most concerning is prolonged lockdowns, and by that I mean time isolated in one’s cell without meaningful human interaction or occupation,” Wildeman said.
The provincial government has been silent on the need to prioritize incarcerated populations and correctional staff for the COVID-19 vaccination says ECPJS and while inmates at the federal level have been prioritized for getting the COVID-19 vaccine, the same priority should be made here in Nova Scotia.
Nova Scotia’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Rober Strang said as they move to introduce community vaccination clinics, public health is identifying vulnerable communities in populations, who are at greater risk of contracting the virus.
“We have communities that because of longstanding socio-economic and other challenges, have in general a much greater risk of COVID-19 and we are working with both of our African Nova Scotia and our First Nations communities around those,” Dr. Strang said at Friday’s COVID-19 press briefing.
“We also know there are settings, whether it’s in homeless shelters or in correctional facilities, that people are both at higher rates of poorer health and a higher risk of an outbreak if COVID gets introduced.”
Between March 2020 and Jan. 14, 2021, the Department of Justice confirmed 48 inmates who were within 10 to 30 days from the completing their sentence were released to their own homes or appropriate housing, and 97 people serving intermittent sentences have been given temporary releases.