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Mother at jail protest info meeting: You just don’t feel human anymore

From left to right: Ardath Whynacht, Bianca Mercer, Martha Paynter, and El Jones. Photo Yazan Khader

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – On Monday, several dozen community members gathered in the Glitter Bean Café on Spring Garden Road to express support for prisoners protesting the conditions at the jail at Burnside.

The event was organized to share updates about the protest at Burnside, explain its context, and allow former prisoners and their families to share their experiences.

Earlier prisoners announced a weeks-long non-violent protest against conditions at the jail in Burnside. In a statement released on August 19, the prisoners called for “a more productive rehabilitative environment.” They specified ten demands, including better healthcare services, healthier diets, contact visits, and more.

El Jones, Halifax’s former Poet Laureate and one of the event’s organizers, said the demands were chosen by prisoners because they were achievable. Correctional Services had already agreed to several of the demands in the past, but never implemented them, Jones said.

Jones dismissed the Department of Justice’s response that “the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility is operating as usual.” While the Department of Justice made this claim, first-hand accounts from prisoners revealed that Burnside was on lockdown for almost a week since the start of the protest and that the staff were refusing to work.

You just don’t feel human anymore

Several former prisoners at Burnside attended the event. Bianca Mercer spent 34 months at Burnside. She entered the facility when she was 10 weeks pregnant. “You just don’t feel human anymore,” she said.

Mercer also said that despite being pregnant she lost weight in the first few months at Burnside. She blamed this on the food options offered at Burnside, which “wasn’t nutritious” and “not fully cooked.” She was often given old leftover food to accommodate her dietary needs, she said. Others referenced situations in which Muslim inmates were denied halal food, and a Hindu inmate became malnourished because his dietary restrictions were not being accommodated.

Many former prisoners at the event mentioned their inability to interact meaningfully with their family while in prison. One audience member who tried to bring a child to visit a family member in prison described the security procedure at entry as being very invasive, and as something that caused her to stop bringing children with her on visitations. Another policy that was directly referenced was the no-contact rule imposed during family visitations.

In April 2017, prisoners at Burnside circulated petitions asking the government to prevent Synergy Inmates Phones, the private company running phone services in provincial prisons, from charging high fees. At the time, Synergy charged inmates up to $10 for a 20-minute call. Mercer pointed out that these high rates persist, and that they prevent prisoners from contacting family members. “It’s embarrassing,” she said as she described how expensive calls would often be charged at the family’s expense.

Martha Paynter, a nurse who works at IWK but who also holds the position of coordinator with Women’s Wellness Within, said these policies lead to “estrangement” between mothers at Burnside and their children. She also pointed out that, while prisoners often come from troubled and marginalized backgrounds, the care provided is significantly below average. Only two physicians work at Burnside, both male, and each taking only one morning shift a week. Paynter also revealed that 30% of the population at Burnside has Hepatitis C, but go untreated because their relatively short prison terms lead physicians to postpone treatment till after the prisoner is released.

Questioning the prison system

Asked why some women end up in prison, Mercer said that many cases she encountered had to do with mothers shoplifting diapers or food for their children, women in abusive relationships defending themselves, and women being sex workers. She then added that the best way to stop women from going to jail was to provide affordable housing and financial support.

Researcher and artist Dr. Ardath Whynacht shared statistics suggesting that nearly three out of  four prisoners in Canada end up back in prison after release; that the government spends nearly $6,000 a month on each prisoner; and that rehabilitative programs are not only more effective at lowering recidivism rates among prisoners and much cheaper than incarceration. These statistics, Whynacht concluded, tell us that Canada’s current approach to “criminal justice is the least evidence based [use] of taxpayer money” and that “deterrence” does not work.

Next steps

Towards the end, the discussion turned to question of strategy.

Claudia Chender, NDP MLA for Dartmouth South said that the current conditions at Burnside exist because they are “politically expedient.” She called on others in the room to bring an end to that. Paynter agreed. She suggested contacting Mark Fury, Nova Scotia’s Minister of Justice, directly at justmin@novascotia.ca as a means of pressuring the provincial government to act.

Jones pointed out that she is helping to collect funds for prisoners so that they can contact their families, and asked others to support this initiative.

Yazan Khader is a law student at Dalhousie University. He can be reached at myazankhader@gmail.com or on Twitter at @yazankhm

On September 6, come out in support of striking prisoners at Central Nova Correctional Facility in Burnside!  We will convene in front of the Department of Justice on Hollis st. and proceed to the provincial court house on Spring Garden Rd. Leaflets and talking points will be provided. 


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