A prison justice advocacy group is calling for change after a video using disturbing language was shared online showing a female prisoner in the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Dartmouth.
Sheila Wildeman, co-chair of the East Coast Prison Justice Society said the group wants to bring attention to the questions of jail administration and transparency as well as the need for an independent review of segregation practices in Nova Scotia jails
“We're quite concerned to bring that to the fore,” Wildeman said in a telephone interview on Tuesday.
The video, allegedly recorded without the woman's knowledge when she was confined in what is called a “health segregation” cell, included a caption using insulting and discriminatory language and was shared to Snapchat last week.
It was allegedly recorded by a facility employee, according to some media outlets.
“They call it 'health segregation,' but really, segregation is segregation,” Wildeman said.
“I think it's really important to go back to the auditor general's recommendation of a few years ago that there be independent oversight of what they call close confinement in provincial jails.”
The group said in a news release issued Tuesday that they “stand in solidarity with the woman whose privacy and dignity were breached.
“We understand that an internal investigation is underway. However, the nature of the wrongdoing in this case suggests an enabling institutional culture, demanding a systemic response. As the saying goes, where there is smoke, there is fire.”
East Coast Prison Justice asked what the provincial ombudsman or Department of Justice is doing to protect prisoners.
Heather Fairbairn, spokeswoman for the Department of Justice, said in an emailed statement that the department recognizes the human rights of persons in custody must be respected and protected at all times.
“We recently became aware of a video and are conducting a thorough investigation. That process will inform any next steps. We are unable to provide further information or comment while the investigation is underway.”
Nova Scotia has no regularized process of jail inspection the way the federal system does, Wildeman said.
“That's a gap that East Coast Prison Justice tried to fill through the project that I refer to near the end of the press release, asking for a revival of some form of prisoner contact.”
They had that through what they called the visiting committee, a form of monitoring jails through a civil society organization, but that fell by the wayside after COVID-19 hit.
“We're very concerned about accountability and transparency in the jails and our visiting committee is one quite innovative and I think important means of contributing to that.”
The group called for six systemic measures to be taken in the wake of the video:
- A comprehensive investigation to identify the staff involved, including those who knew about or otherwise colluded in the recording and distribution of the video;
- Immediate suspension of those involved pending discipline/dismissal and public notice of measures taken;
- Compensation of the victim(s) including financial support for legal representation, and more broadly, a commitment to explore expanding legal aid to cover matters engaging prisoners’ fundamental rights;
- Quarterly independent audits of jail administration by the provincial Ombuds, including but not limited to use of segregation (including “health segregation”), together with public distribution of the reports;
- A commitment from Justice, Corrections, and the Nova Scotia Health Authority to engage with East Coast Prison Justice Society on renewing our Visiting Committee project. That project of independent civil society inreach in the men’s units, comparable to the human rights monitoring done by Elizabeth Fry Societies with women prisoners, began with ECPJS members convening small group discussions with CNSCF prisoners plus institutional follow-up in February 2020. The project was suspended with the inception of COVID-19. The jail line ECPJS established in the interim has not been as successful at comprehensive in-reach, yet provincially incarcerated people we are in contact with report significant and consistent concerns demanding renewed systematic attention;
- Most importantly, and consistent with communications sent by ECPJS to Justice and Corrections officials in December 20206 which received no response: renew efforts on the part of the Department of Justice, the Correctional Service, the Departments of Community Services, Municipal Affairs and Health, and NSHA, to facilitate supported community release of prisoners consistent with public health and safety.
“We have had a good relationship with the director of Corrections, John Scofield and with Correctional officials over the last couple of years as we designed the visiting committee initiative,” Wildeman said. “They know that our purpose is to ensure accountability, but from their side, they've indicated that they acknowledge it's also in the interest of safe corrections, I guess you'd say, to ensure that prisoner concerns are identified and responded to systematically before they blow.”
But COVID caused major disruptions with no the institutions essentially sealed since last March, she said.
“We recognize the importance of that as pandemic protection, absolutely, but we also believe, just as with the nursing homes and other facilities of congregate living that there are ways to facilitate not just visits, but in this case, accountability mechanisms. I think that is as essential as any other aspect of our pandemic policy at this point.”
Wildeman said they hope there will be renewed communications, “because as a volunteer organization comprised of lawyers, doctors, students and people of various stripes, people with family who are incarcerated, former incarcerated people, we're offering to assist in the work of protecting prisoners' human rights. So, we hope that they will respond.”