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N.S. says more freedom coming for some segregated inmates

CBC News with Martha Paynter 24 October 2018

A new unit planned for Nova Scotia’s largest jail will grant more freedom and human contact to some inmates who are now confined to their cells for up to 23 hours a day, but a prisoner advocacy group argues the change will not stop the “torture” of the facility’s most vulnerable.

Corrections officials shared plans to open what’s known as an intervention unit early next year at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility during an appearance Wednesday before the legislature’s public accounts committee.

The province’s deputy justice minister said the unit at the Burnside jail would be “something in between” solitary confinement and being in the facility’s general population, where inmates are outside their cells for most of the day.

Eligible inmates “could have more openness and more ability to [take part in] programs and not be in a cell, but in a unit,” said Karen Hudson.

Chris Collett, executive director of correctional services, said the unit would allow much more time outside cells for approved inmates.

“This new unit would offer small groups to be able to be out and have meaningful human contact on the unit, involved in programs and services on that unit, rather than being confined for sometimes up to 23 hours a day in a cell,” Collett told reporters.

The announcement, however, received a swift rebuke from the Women’s Wellness Within, a non-profit organization that has called for the abolishment of solitary confinement.

Chair Martha Paynter questioned how many inmates would actually see their lives improved by the new unit.

“When we have these kinds of initiatives it makes us think, ‘Oh, we’re doing something, it’s OK,'” she said.

“How many people does this actually help? And does this make us feel better about ourselves when the majority and the most vulnerable continue to be victimized by the system?”

Solitary confinement lawsuit

Former inmates in Nova Scotia recently launched a proposed class-action lawsuit against the provincial government, alleging the use of solitary confinement for more than 15 days at a time constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, and breaches the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“The UN [United Nations] defines this as torture,” said Paynter. “We have too much evidence of very complex health histories and disability, co-morbidities among this population to really justify putting anyone through that torture.”

Nova Scotia’s announcement comes just days after federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale introduced legislation to establish penitentiary units — to be called structured intervention units — that will house inmates separately while still giving them access to rehabilitation, mental health care and other programs.

The federal Liberal government has also faced legal challenges over Correctional Service Canada’s policies on solitary confinement. Earlier this year, a B.C. Supreme Court judge ruled that the practice of prolonged and indefinite solitary confinement in Canadian prisons is unconstitutional.

Like the new federal plan, the Burnside unit will only be available to some inmates. Inmates who are being punished for breaking the rules inside the jail, including those not yet convicted of a crime, will remain in segregation.

Collett said about 40 people a day are kept in solitary confinement provincewide and half of those are there for breaking the rules.