N.S. prison reform groups call for inmate releases as COVID-19 spreads

Click to play video: 'Prison justice advocates call for more to be done amid COVID-19 outbreaks at 2 N.S. facilities'
Prison justice advocates call for more to be done amid COVID-19 outbreaks at 2 N.S. facilities
WATCH: Prison justice advocates call for more to be done amid COVID-19 outbreaks at 2 N.S. facilities – Jan 1, 2022

Two Nova Scotia organizations dedicated to prison reform are calling for some inmates to be released as COVID-19 continues to spread.

On Tuesday, Correctional Service Canada announced that eight inmates had tested positive for COVID-19 at the Nova Institution for Women, a federal institution in Truro, N.S. As of Friday, that number had grown to 20. The prison has a capacity of 90 people and there are typically around 70 people incarcerated there.

Nova Scotia’s Department of Justice also announced on Friday that 31 male inmates at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia’s largest provincial jail, have tested positive for the coronavirus. As of Wednesday, there were 233 inmates at the jail. No cases were reported among female inmates.

The federal and provincial governments say there are measures in place at both facilities to limit the spread of infection, including restrictions on movement, increased cleaning and masking.

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Martha Paynter, a registered nurse and the founder of the reproductive justice and prison abolition organization Wellness Within, is concerned about the impact increased restrictions will have on the inmates.

“Many of us have, perhaps facetiously, said that it felt like we were imprisoned when we had to isolate, or quarantine, or what have you, during COVID,” she told Global News.

“That really was inappropriate to say. People in prison – at the best of times – endure really horrific conditions, and on lockdown, these prisoners are unable to communicate, they have no control over their access to showers, to food. It’s very dire.”

Martha Paynter is a registered nurse and the founder of Wellness Within. Elizabeth McSheffrey / Global News

According to Correctional Service Canada, 90 per cent of inmates at the Nova Institution for Women are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

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However, Nova Scotia did not release vaccination information for inmates at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility, also known as the Burnside jail.

In a joint news release issued Friday by Wellness Within and the East Coast Prison Justice Society, the organizations called on the Nova Scotia government to share the vaccination rates among inmates.

“We understand that fewer than 50 per cent of the total incarcerated male population have been vaccinated, with the lowest vaccination rates being amongst African Nova Scotian and/or Indigenous persons, who are disproportionately represented in provincial custody,” the statement said.

The groups are calling for numbers in provincial custody to be reduced, by providing temporary absences among sentenced prisoners, expediting bail hearings, and reviewing remand orders of those who have not yet been tried.

Paynter noted that around 80 per cent of those in custody in Burnside are on remand while awaiting bail or a trial.

Click to play video: 'Nova Scotia to make COVID-19 booster dose available for people 30 and older'
Nova Scotia to make COVID-19 booster dose available for people 30 and older

She said reducing the number of inmates – and preventing more people from being incarcerated for things like “petty” parole violations – should be a top priority to reduce numbers and protect inmates and staff from COVID-19.

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“It’s simply unsafe, as well as unethical, to have people in an environment that’s that dangerous in terms of transmission,” she said.

“They didn’t sign up for that. That’s not part of the sentence … and being subjected to a near guarantee of transmitting this illness is simply unfair.”

Click to play video: 'COVID-19 outbreak closes Brockville Jail'
COVID-19 outbreak closes Brockville Jail

Paynter also raised concerns about the impact the pandemic is having on staffing levels. The province said “several” staff at the Burnside jail have tested positive for COVID-19, and Paynter said at least 19 staff members have tested positive at the Nova Institution for Women.

“When there’s reduced staffing, that increases unrest, that increases violence, because it usually comes with more lockdown conditions, which is very agitating, and it’s especially agitating when you’re in a situation of high stress and fear,” she said.

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In an emailed statement, Correctional Service Canada said it, along with the Parole Board of Canada, continues to process eligible inmates for release from federal prisons, in accordance with the law.

“A number of considerations go into release decision-making with public safety being the paramount consideration,” it said.

“On average, 600 offenders are released each month. This occurs, through parole, statutory release, or expiration of sentence. Since March 1, 2020, the number of inmates in federal custody has decreased by 1,518.”

It said COVID-19 testing is being offered broadly to inmates and staff, and employees are required to do a rapid test with a negative result before entering the site.

Nova Scotia’s Department of Justice could not be reached for comment Saturday, but said in a release Friday that Correctional Services are working with Public Health “to maintain a safe environment for persons in custody and staff in the facility.”

“Measures are in place to minimize the spread of the virus, including distribution of medical masks, restrictions on movement through the facility, increased cleaning and disinfecting,” it said. “The situation is being monitored closely and assessed daily.”

Meanwhile, there are at least two other federal institutions in the Maritimes with positive COVID-19 cases.

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Correctional Service Canada announced on Thursday that three inmates and seven staff members have tested positive at the Atlantic Institution in Renous, N.B.

There is currently one active inmate case at the Springhill Institution in Nova Scotia.

— with files from Graeme Benjamin

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