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With two COVID-19 cases in Burnside jail advocates call for accelerated repeat of last year’s successful release efforts

Burnside Jail. Photo CBC

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – In the last day two individuals within the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility (the Burnside jail), one an employee, have been infected with COVID-19. At this time all prisoners in Burnside are in lockdown.

Lockdown means no contact with others, no ability to move, no fresh air, no phone calls, says Martha Paynter, Chair of Wellness Within, an organization working for reproductive justice, prison abolition, and health equity.

“What we have to understand is that when we are in isolation in our homes with our laptops and our cell phones, and groceries we can order from the Superstore, it’s just not at all comparable. Anyone who jokes about being imprisoned while self isolating is vastly ignorant to what true lockdown means, Paynter says. 

What a difference a year makes. Last year, when Covid-19 first arrived in Nova Scotia, the province quickly and efficiently released hundreds of incarcerated Nova Scotians. The risks and potentially deadly consequences if infection were to get a foothold in provincial jails were clearly understood, and the province acted decisively. By all accounts that release program was a success. Altogether, the provincial prison population was reduced by some 40 percent. 

“Everything about this program was positive and well regarded, there were no incidents, the crime rate did not increase by any stretch of imagination. Most individuals who did return to prison had breached administrative orders of their release, they didn’t commit new offences, they didn’t endanger anyone,” Dr. Adelina Iftene of the East Coast Prison Justice Society told the Nova Scotia Advocate when we interviewed her late last month.

Now that we are in the middle of a much more virulent third wave provincial jails are once again filled to capacity. Some individuals have recently been released, justice minister Randy Delorey told CBC’s Taryn Grant this morning, but the province was slow getting out of the starting blocks.

Meanwhile, long time pleas by prisoners advocates to prioritize vaccination of incarcerated people and correctional staff were acknowledged, but not acted upon until sometime last week.   

Like last year non-profits like the Coverdale Courtwork Society, Adsum for Women, Elizabeth Fry and others will do what they can to support those individuals that are being released, typically with no place to go.

Last time around these organizations did so with support from the federal government. The province offered minimal support. Federal support has now mostly ended.

Earlier we spoke with Coverdale Courtwork and Adsum for Women and Children about the difficulties of providing that support on shoestring budgets. 

See also: Yet another NGO forced to pull plug on program providing emergency shelter in hotels

This cannot happen again, says Martha Paynter, who calls on the community to pressure politicians to come through on an accelerated release program and funding for support organizations.

“Here we have the chance to set sensible economic priorities, and do things that actually serve our communities. Meanwhile we are literally throwing money into this prison and letting it catch fire,” says Paynter.

“It’s really important to demonstrate that there is understanding and compassion in the community for people who are experiencing criminalization. I hope that members of the public will contact their MLAs and demonstrate their support for people inside and recognise we are all in this together, she says. 

See also: News brief: Prison advocates demand prioritized vaccination for prisoners, correctional staff and support workers as province considers another mass preventative release (updated)

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