'My chance to change my life': Woman shares story of being in federal dry cell

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LIsa Adams (left) stands with the executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia, Emma Halpern (right).  (Steve Lawrence/CBC - image credit)
LIsa Adams (left) stands with the executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia, Emma Halpern (right). (Steve Lawrence/CBC - image credit)

A few weeks after being released from prison, Lisa Adams was able to visit with her young sons and hold them for the first time in a year.

"This is the most positive I've felt. I feel like I have a lot going for me right now," she said in an interview in February, about a month after her release from Nova Institution in Truro, N.S.

"This is my chance to change my life. I've been dealing with addiction for many, many years. I've tried everything. I've been in an active addiction for many years. But it's been also the try and the fail, many times. I've done every type of treatment you can imagine."

She was given a two-year sentence for drug trafficking after becoming addicted to methamphetamines and later began selling them to others in her hometown of Saint John, N.B. She reached her statutory release date in January.

"Having gone through what I went through, really I had to re-convince myself that I was worth more than drugs," she said. "Going through this experience has shown me that I'm actually worth a lot more than that."

Lisa Adams reflects on her experiences in prison during a CBC interview in Feb. 2021.
Lisa Adams reflects on her experiences in prison during a CBC interview in Feb. 2021. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

Adams shared her story with CBC to help the public understand her experience in prison and her legal challenge against the use of dry cells in federal institutions.

Hear more about Lisa Adams' story in a new radio documentary on Atlantic Voice, airing on CBC Radio One on Sunday, April 11 at 8:30 a.m. AT.

After prison guards accused her of hiding drugs in her vagina, she spent 16 days in a dry cell in May 2020. A dry cell is a space without a toilet or running water, where guards monitor a prisoner constantly for contraband. A doctor's examination revealed Adams had no foreign objects in her body.

The legal challenge was heard in court in November 2020, and Adams and her lawyers are awaiting a decision from a Nova Scotia Supreme Court judge.

Adams and her legal team at the Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia argue the law that allows dry cells is cruel and unconstitutional.

The Correctional Service of Canada has declined to comment on the case before the courts. In court, a lawyer representing the CSC said what happened to Adams was a mistake but dry cells in general should not be banned as they can be used properly within administrative guidelines.

Expensive legal battle

Emma Halpern, the executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society, said depending on the judge's decision, the society may need to follow the decision to higher courts.

"We've been committed to following, holding on to this case and to moving it forward at every level from the very beginning," she said. "We were going to fight this because it was wrong."

Emma Halpern is the executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia.
Emma Halpern is the executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia.(Steve Lawrence/CBC)

In early 2021, Halpern learned "extremely troubling" news that grants which had previously been available for prison law programs are not available this year due to COVID-19. The grants were funded based on the interest earned on lawyers' trust accounts, and the interest rates had been lowered due to the pandemic.

"We are fortunate with Lisa's case in particular that we've been able to apply for funds from the court challenges program to help us with the appeal for Lisa's case," Halpern said. She added that Elizabeth Fry will not end any of its ongoing files, but will do them pro bono if necessary while trying find other funds.

Halpern said representing the interests of marginalized people like women in prisons is "essential human rights legal work," but also the area where it is hardest to cobble together funding.

"That should be worrying, I think, to all Canadians," she said.

Justice minister declines interview

Since news of Adams's court challenge first became public, the province of Nova Scotia has changed its policy on dry cells in provincial jails.

"I received the news of that while I was still inside," said Adams. "People were coming up to me saying, 'Oh, I saw you on the news.' I thought, 'OK, well, that was a while ago.' But they said, 'No, there's been a new victory.'"

The Nova Scotia decision doesn't affect federal prisons like Nova Institution, and the provincial justice department clarified the change is not a ban.

Former justice minister Mark Furey is shown on Jan 21, 2020.
Former justice minister Mark Furey is shown on Jan 21, 2020.(Craig Paisley/CBC)

CBC requested an interview with former justice minister Mark Furey before he stepped down from the position in February. Furey declined an interview and sent a statement through a spokesperson, which read in part:

"In 2018, we made the decision to invest $1 million in body scanning technology and since then we have seen positive results. The number of incidents of contraband coming into our facilities has decreased significantly. Body scanners have proven to be effective and, based on this, the use of dry cells has now been eliminated as a standard practice in our provincial facilities.

"This is not a ban," the statement read. "We recognize there may be occasions when the use of body scanning technology may not be available or appropriate and past practices may be required in order to maintain a safe environment for inmates and staff."

The exterior of Nova Institution, a federal prison for women in Truro, Nova Scotia.
The exterior of Nova Institution, a federal prison for women in Truro, Nova Scotia. (The Canadian Press)

In a briefing note obtained under access to information laws, the department stated the province owns five body scanners and staff will try to ensure all inmates who are admitted to a jail have a "clean body scan" prior to admission.

Under the new policy, the briefing note stated a person suspected of carrying contraband will be kept in confinement until the person completes a clear body scan. The cell will have running water.

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