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Better supports needed in Nova Scotia prisons, says mental health advocate

Halifax Today with Martha Paynter 20 January 2019

One Nova Scotia woman thinks correctional facilities like the Burnside Jail need to be doing a better job at addressing prisoner’s needs. 

Martha Paynter is a nurse and the director of Women’s Wellness Within, a support group serving criminalizaed women in Nova Scotia. 

She would like to see something similar to the Jail Accountability and Information Line (JAIL), a toll free line rolled out in the Ottawa Correctional Detenion Centre last month.

“The idea behind this toll free line is that prisoners… would be able to call and get information, report what they consider to be human rights abuses, and simply have someone to talk to to reduce the isolation and lonliness that they feel and to get information about community supports available,” she said in an interview with NEWS 95.7’s Sheldon MacLeod. 

Paynter says more than two-thirds, and sometimes as high as 80 per cent of prison populations are people on remand, meaning they are awaiting a trial and have yet to be convicted of a crime. 

“It’s when people are on remand that we’re seeing the most gross violations of health happen,” she said. 

Last fall, the death of Josh Evans, a young man on remand at the Burnside jail, sparked outrage. The previous death to occur at Burnside was in 2016, and also involved a man on remand, says Paynter. 

“You can be on remand indefinitely. There’s no limits, and that takes an enourmous toll on mental health,” said Paynter. 

She says methods like the JAIL hotline allow health concerns to be addressed sooner, as well as increase communication and understanding of prisoners’ experiences. 

Currently in Nova Scotia, if a prisoner has a complaint they are directed to the prison’s ombudsperson. Paynter says access to the number is restricted in a number of ways, and as a result, not many people are using it. 

“You have to know that number, and you have to be allowed to make a phone call, but on top of that you can’t be doing that when you’re in segregation, and you can’t be doing it on behalf of someone else, it has to be you who calls directly,” she said. “You can’t do it if you observe something happening.” 

Since December, the JAIL line in Ottawa was receiving eight to 10 calls a day; 36 per cent of those calls were about medicals needs, and 22 per cent were about service needs, explains Paynter. 

“I think we can use this as evidence that what we have right now simply is not adequate,” she said. “Whether it’s a different toll free line that would be staffed by volunteers or supporters and have a different meaning to prisoners than perhaps calling the ombudsperson.”