Jail is…Great?

When I saw the headline “Life in lockup“on the front page of Tuesday’s Cape Breton Post I was impressed — a full, front page story (and two additional pages inside) exploring life in the Cape Breton Correctional Facility? SaltWire actually doing a valuable “deep dive?” Excellent.

And then I read it.

Reporter Sharon Montgomery-Dupe managed to explore every corner of the Cape Breton Correctional Facility without encountering a single inmate. It’s actually pretty damn impressive.

I don’t know where they hid the prisoners for the day — the facility can hold 96 men plus “up to six females and youth.” I hope they took them somewhere fun, so they wouldn’t interrupt Montgomery-Dupe as she was turning her critical reporter’s eye on every aspect of the local jail, starting with the lobby:

Walking into the Cape Breton Correctional Facility, the visitor enters into a large, open area that doesn’t look much like the entranceway to a jail.

The foyer includes a desk off to the right and a kiosk which people can use to send money to inmates. Several doors lead to other parts of the facility, but still there’s no hint of what sort of a facility you are about to enter.

It reminded me of what Tim Bousquet wrote, after he himself had taken a tour of the Burnside jail (or rather, the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility):

This was a PR exercise on the part of Corrections, and as such things go, was well-run. Corrections staff were informative and answered even the most pointed questions. Reporters did not, however, get the chance to interact or talk with inmates; I would’ve liked to have had that chance to hear what they thought. Still, I got a real sense of jail operations, and I’m glad I went

What Tim didn’t do was write three articles based on his visit, providing readers with a “look inside” a corrections facility entirely from the viewpoint of its staff.

But Montgomery-Dupe did.


Not the Ritz

So, what kind of place is the Cape Breton Correctional Facility?

Why, it’s a grand place, where people are well fed, receiving “generous portions” of food (although there’s an Oliver Twistian policy on seconds) at a per-inmate cost of only $10 a day!

On that budget, it’s clearly not the Ritz, but officials overseeing the provincial jails say inmates do get to taste quality meals.

(On that budget, it’s clearly not the Travelodge — and I have to assume inmates actually get to eat these quality meals, although the choice of the verb “taste” is making me wonder.)

It’s an educational facility, where men — 60% of whom are on remand, meaning many have not yet been found guilty of any crime — can learn skills that will serve them well in the outside world, like washing dishes. And operating an industrial dishwasher.

This might have been a good time to mention Nova Scotia’s remand problem: a 2018 report for the NS Department of Justice, showed a 192% increase in remand admissions in this province between 2005 and 20016.

Source: Remand in Nova Scotia 2005-2016, NS Dept of Justice, July 2018 https://novascotia.ca/just/publications/docs/Remand-in-Nova-Scotia-2005%E2%80%932016.pdf

Source: Remand in Nova Scotia 2005-2016, NS Dept of Justice, July 2018)

But Montgomery-Dupe is on to more interesting subjects: did you know inmates at the Cape Breton Corrections Facility can play the guitar and do some “therapeutic coloring?” I wonder how much coloring it would take to soothe the soul of a man on remand for “upwards of three years,” a situation apparently not unheard of at the local jail?

I’m not saying the food and training opportunities and relaxation possibilities at the Cape Breton Correctional Facility are not good, I’m just saying that prison staff are not necessarily the best people to critique them. In fact, at any given time, there could be as many as 96 people better positioned to critique the programs at the facility and yet Montgomery-Dupe chose to speak only to staff. Namely, with:

Kim Shepherd, superintendent

John Scoville, chief superintendent of the Nova Scotia adult correctional facilities (who got to use the word “criminogenic” which is not easy to work into conversation.)

Gena MacDermid-Gosse, deputy superintendent

Erica Cousins, program officer

Chris Sheehan, Sheriff for Cape Breton County

Desiree Magnus, spokesperson for the Cape Breton Regional Police Service (I presume Desiree Vasallo got married as it seems unlikely the CBRP would hire two Desirees as spokespeople).


Phone home

I suspect the decision to take “a look inside the Cape Breton Correctional Facility” may have been inspired by the recent unrest at the Burnside prison in Dartmouth. What I know about Burnside, I know thanks to the reporting of El Jones in the Halifax Examiner. Jones has been a tireless advocate for prisoners’ rights, and although I believe conditions in Burnside — which sparked (peaceful) inmate protests last summer — are worse than those in the Cape Breton facility, both prisons are provincially operated and therefore, many of the problems Jones has cataloged exist here.

Take the question of phone calls. Montgomery-Dupe mentions them only in passing — as part of a discussion of her real obsession, “currency in confinement” to which she devotes an entire article. She’s especially entranced by the marvelous machine in the lobby of the jail that allows people to deposit money in the accounts of prisoners anywhere in the country.

“They could use the money in their account for things like the canteen or phone calls,” John Scoville tells her.

The machine is owned by a Texas-based “inmate communications company” called Synergy (which promises “uncompromising quality fanatical service”) and which, as Robert Devet has reported in The Nova Scotia Advocate, operates the phone system in Nova Scotia’s provincial jails. The company, writes Devet:

…charges prisoners $1.85 for a collect local call and $7.50 for a collect 20-minute long distance call. That’s an awful lot of money, especially if your loved ones happen to live outside local call range.

Even more so if you take into account additional fees and surcharges the company collects for, well, basically everything.

Any long distance call will cost you $1.00 if it is prepaid, $1.50 if it’s collect, and that’s before you even touch the dial . Next, the company charges a $2.00 transaction fee and grabs 5% of the deposit if a deposit is made with a credit card. For money orders there is a $3.95 transaction fee.

Even if you pay with cash there is a $2.00 surcharge, and you are still on the hook for an additional 2% of the amount deposited.

The charges add up really quickly when you consider that inmates (or “offenders” as Synergy prefers to call them) are permitted to spend only $35 per week. Devet goes on to explain that the system costs the government nothing — Synergy makes its revenue “solely from the user-pay system.” Moreover, Synergy pays the province a commission for this privilege.

But there’s an alternative to phone calls, writes Montgomery:

At some jails, inmates can also use their account for use of computer tablets which became available through a pilot project in the North Western Nova Scotia Correctional Centre in New Glasgow in February 2017 and the Southwest Nova Scotia Correctional Centre in Yarmouth in October 2018.

The tablets are limited in use by an inmate but can be used for entertainment in which there would be a fee that would come from their trust account. The inmate could also use it to send messages instead of using the phone…

Scoville said there’s no cost to the government. The company overseeing the tablets bears the cost. It’s a secure system and there isn’t any Internet at the correctional facilities, for safety reasons, he added.

The “company overseeing the tablets” is, of course, Synergy. And the program was suspended at the New Glasgow jail in 2018, according to the CBC’s Preston Mulligan, because some inmates:

…used the tablets to access the personal information of other prisoners. In one incident, an inmate physically assaulted a prisoner with a tablet.

“We had a few broken … but that was not the reason the pilot was suspended,” said John Scoville, chief superintendent of Nova Scotia’s adult facilities. “It was more to do with inmates not being able to protect their accounts.”

That would be the same John Scoville who spoke with Montgomery-Dupe. I guess he was too busy explaining how the tablets won’t cost us anything to explain the problems associated with them.

Mulligan noted that similar programs have been launched in New Brunswick and Alberta but, according to Scoville, “privacy issues” forced both provinces to “temporarily discontinue” them.



Mulligan’s story focused on how the tablets were “dangerous” but you could throw anything at a guard or another prisoner if you were frustrated and angry because, say, you’d been on remand for “upwards of three years” and had to pay a Texas-based prison profiteer to communicate with your friends and family and had just been fed a submarine sandwich from Sobey’s for lunch. (There’s a picture of a cheery prison guard holding a stack of them in one of Montgomery-Dupe’s stories.)

But there’s another side to this story and it’s the one Jones focuses on — the prisoners’ side. Here’s what she wrote about prison phone calls in January 2016:

Speaking of isolation, one of the most important things for prisoners and families is phone calls. Maintaining connection to families and communities is important in supporting prisoners through their time inside, and particularly in helping them to have supports when they get out. For prisoners who are parents, phone calls are obviously vital in being able to be present in their children[‘s] lives. Having supports on the outside are one of the most important factors in reintegrating people when they get out, and in preventing recidivism…

Many people probably have not thought about the phone system in prison. Those who do have family or loved ones in prison often do not speak about these issues because of the shame and stigma of incarceration. And of course the communities and people that most suffer from incarceration are also the poorest and most powerless. The silencing of issues around incarceration allows predatory and exploitive phone practices to take place. Phone companies should not be allowed to gouge prisoners and their families simply because they don’t have any other options, and because they can. We should all be disgusted at these practices.

The visitors’ area at the Cape Breton Correctional Facility. (Photo by Sharon Montgomery-Dupe, Cape Breton Post)

Jones also considered the effects of the “no-contact” visitor system in place at Nova Scotia’s prisons, particularly its effect on fathers trying to maintain relationships with children. She spoke to a man in Burnside (whom she identifies only as “K”) who told her that while in federal prisons, visits are face-to-face, in provincial institutions:

You can have visits, but you’re not allowed to touch. You just sit on the other side, on a phone, through glass. They don’t care that much.

Emma Halpern, executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia, told Jones that many families find this arrangement too traumatic for children:

What I hear, and I’m sure it’s the same for fathers, is that sometimes it’s so much more painful even, and that mothers certainly worry about the trauma it causes and the effects on their kids of seeing that.

But for Montgomery-Dupe, the “no-contact” arrangement is simply “for safety reasons, including preventing contraband from entering facilities” and her three-article series was illustrated with a front-page photo of the phones (and the glass) in the visitors’ area.


“Locking down some facts”

Much of Jones’ activism around prisons focuses on the over-incarceration of Indigenous and African Nova Scotians, a subject Montgomery-Dupe inadvertently references when she says:

Inmates receive special meals at Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter, as well as during African Heritage Month in February and one for National Aboriginal Cultural Day in June.

Earlier this year, in a story about the Nova Scotia’s Justice Department’s push to hire more Indigenous and African Nova Scotian correctional workers, the CBC’s Sherri Borden Colley quoted these Justice Department stats:

  • African-Nova Scotians represent two per cent of the province’s population but 11 per cent of adults admitted to custody (remand and sentenced custody) in provincial jails in 2017-18.
  • Indigenous people represent six per cent of the Nova Scotia population but eight per cent of adults admitted to custody (remand and sentenced custody) in provincial jails in 2017-18.
  • Of the 653 correctional staff in Nova Scotia’s adult and youth facilities, 15 (2.3 per cent) self-identify as Aboriginal and 35 (5.4 per cent) self-identify as African-Nova Scotian.

(It’s also worth noting that over the period between 2005-2016 African Nova Scotians represented 13% of remanded adults and Indigenous 11%.)

How you can pen three, full-page articles about a Nova Scotia correctional facility without even mentioning this issue is beyond me.

But how you could pen three, full-age articles about a Nova Scotia correctional facility without speaking to a single person who is either incarcerated now or has been incarcerated in the past blows my mind.

Surely journalistic “objectivity” demands that someone other than the people running the jail be asked about life in the jail? These articles simply give the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval to the status quo at the Cape Breton Corrections Facility. They could have been written by the superintendent himself. In a way, they kind of were.



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