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OP ED: Nova Scotia needs a JAIL hotline

The Halifax Examiner by Martha Paynter 15 January 2019

For one month, prisoners at the Ottawa Carleton Detention Centre (OCDC) have had access to a phone hotline a few hours a day to report concerns and receive support from volunteers. This is the jail where Julie Bilotta was forced to give birth unattended in 2012. Her son died, and she later settled a civil action against the province. With only a month of data, health care emerged clearly as the OCDC prisoners’ number one concern.

The Jail Accountability and Information Line (JAIL) is unique in Canada. Here in Nova Scotia, when prisoners have concerns about treatment while remanded or serving a provincial sentence, they may call the Office of the Ombudsperson. This office receives complaints about unfair treatment of anyone in Nova Scotia by any provincial or municipal service. The 2017-2018 Annual Report from the Office states that adult correctional facilities are visited quarterly. No details are provided with respect to the nature of these outreach visits, and the report does not summarize the nature of or numbers of complaints from prisoners. We do not have public accountability with respect to prisoner complaints.

Prisoners at Burnside, the largest provincial correctional facility in Nova Scotia, have taken to newsmedia to share their concerns. The number one demand from prisoners during the three-week long strike in August-September of 2018 was better health care. Concerns included disruption in medication, lack of treatment for chronic pain and infectious disease, long wait times, lack of access to specialist care and dental care, and most glaringly, lack of compassion. On the final day of the strike, a young man on remand named Josh Evans was found dead in his cell after a suicide attempt. This week, Burnside prisoners responded to the high-profile clemency victory for Cyntoia Brown in Tennessee with a plea that citizens not forget about prisoners right here and now.

The prisoner capacity at OCDC is 575 people, including men and women. By comparison, on any given day in Nova Scotia there are an average of 482 prisoners in provincial facilities. In one month, the JAIL line received 150 calls, a quarter of which pertained to health. Health is also the most common source of inmate complaints to the federal Office of the Correctional Investigator, and health-related complaints are rising. If prisoners in Nova Scotia had access to a resource like JAIL or a provincial Correctional Investigator, would we be likely to experience a similar volume of calls for similar concerns to OCDC?

While a telling window into the realities for prisoners when they have trusted options for complaints, the JAIL line has yet to receive a call from an incarcerated woman. Despite being the fastest-growing population in jails and prisons in Canada, women remain a small and under-served minority of the overall population. From October 2017 to March of last year, Nova Scotia Minister of Justice Mark Furey reports that 166 unique women were admitted to provincial jail here. Women and women-identified prisoners have complex health histories and needs, including extraordinarily high rates of physical and sexual trauma. The conditions of incarceration, including isolation, solitary confinement, strip searching, and restraints, are re-traumatizing. These conditions are disproportionately borne by Indigenous populations and people of colour: Ten to 11.4 per cent of Nova Scotia’s provincial prisoners are Black, and seven to 12 per cent are Indigenous.

We could and should set up a JAIL line here. We could and should invest in a provincial Correctional Investigator. We should also divest from incarceration, and invest in health. It costs, on average, $75,000 a year to imprison a person in a provincial facility; women prisoners are more costly, and solitary confinement 10 times the cost of general population. Most of the prisoners in Nova Scotia are remanded, waiting for trial. Remand rates are increasing. Provincial spending on prisons is rising in Canada.

We must listen to the concerns of prisoners and uphold our social obligations to ensure their right to health. We can start by addressing the over-incarceration of people who have yet to be convicted, and facilitate access to health services in our hospitals and communities.

Martha Paynter is a nurse, nursing PhD student, and director of Women’s Wellness Within.