For 18 months, the East Coast Justice Society has been working with male prisoners in the province’s four adult provincial correctional facilities to help advance their human rights.
The grassroots organization focused on incarcerated men as other organizations provide similar services for women.
While the program was originally being operated through in-person visits with prisoners, those had to stop due to the COVID-19 pandemic and correspondence was largely switched to phone. A report has been released with key findings from discussions with prisoners over the past year an a half.
For the most part, prisoner complaints fell into four categories:
- Deprivations of liberty
- Cleanliness and hygiene
- Communication issues
- Other institutional concerns
Harry Critchley, a board member for the East Coast Justice Society, says that the most common complaints revolved around deprivations of liberty.
“That primarily had to do with lockdowns,” said Critchley.
Prisoners reported excessive lockdowns, with some saying they spent 80-90 per cent of their time locked down for weeks, sometimes months on end.
Critchley says this leads to all sorts of concerns.
“If you’re only allowed out one hour of a day or two hours of a day it can be very difficult to maintain contact with your family, or to maintain contact with your lawyer.”
Contact with lawyers is especially important for those incarcerated in provincial jails. While the jails house inmates who have up to two-year sentences, the majority of individuals — over 70 per cent — in provincial custody are in remand, which means they’re awaiting a court date.
“They are legally innocent under law, they are like you and me” said Critchley. “They have been denied bail. That does not mean that have been convicted of any offence.”
Prolonged periods of lockdown are also shown to have more of an impact on a prisoner’s mental health and ongoing lockdowns where individuals are in solitary confinement can actually be a violation of human rights.
“So placing someone in conditions like that for more than 15 days is considered torture under Canadian law and international law,” said Critchley.
To address these issues, the report outlines several recommendations including a requirement for sufficient staffing to limit lockdowns, and ensuring that those detained in their cell for prolonged periods of time should be provided access to legal counsel.
When it comes to cleanliness and hygiene, prisoners brought up issues around the lack of cleaning supplies to ensure living spaces could be cleaned, limited access to showers and ongoing concerns over the cleaning of the Close Confinement Unity.
“We heard very, very serious concerns about bio-hazardous materials like blood and feces along the walls for very, very long periods of time,” said Critchley.
The report also outlines concerns over communication with inmates around the rules of the prison. In previous years, inmates were given an orientation handbook, which outlined prisoned rights and responsibilities, something especially important for those who were incarcerated for the first time, but the handbook has been discontinued due to security concerns. The report recommends that individuals be given written information regarding their rights upon incarceration.
The final categories of common complaints, other institutional concerns, covers concerns over racism, access to health care and other human rights.
The report found there were lots of reports of incidents of racism directed towards African Nova Scotia and Indigenous prisoners, with Black people in custody put in segregation more often and for longer periods of time.
Indigenous prisoners also reported being denied access to smudging, something that should be available daily when requested.
In total, the report has 43 recommendations and the East Coast Prison Justice Society is calling on the provincial government to enact all recommendations, saying that just because people are imprisoned does not mean they lose their human rights.
“They’re away from their friends, they’re away from their families, they’re away from their support networks, they become truly quite powerless,” said Critchley.
“So these kind of accountability mechanisms and our kind of groups that do monitoring to ensure there’s compliance with domestic and international human rights standards is why that work is so important.”