COVID-19 outbreak announced at Burnside jail, cases rise at women's prison

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Cells are seen during a media tour of renovations at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in 2018. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press - image credit)
Cells are seen during a media tour of renovations at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in 2018. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press - image credit)

The province has announced a COVID-19 outbreak at the Burnside jail, while cases of the virus continue to climb at the federal women's prison in Truro.

In a release Friday, Nova Scotia's justice department said 31 adults in custody at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Dartmouth have tested positive.

No one is in hospital, and "several" staff at the facility have also tested positive and are self-isolating. There are no positive tests in the jail's female unit.

As of Wednesday, there were 233 adults in custody at the Central Nova jail. The current cases account for about 13 per cent of the total population.

Restrictions in place to curb virus spread

The province said measures are in place to minimize the spread of the virus, including medical masks, restrictions on movement through the facility and increased cleaning and disinfecting.

The facility is closed for all in-person visits. Options are available for those in custody to connect with their families, legal counsel and other support.

There are no other confirmed cases involving people in custody at the other provincial correctional facilities.

On Friday, advocacy groups Wellness Within and the East Coast Prison Justice Society also called for vaccination percentages of those in provincial jails like Burnside to be released.

In a joint release, they said "we understand that fewer than 50 per cent of the total incarcerated male population have been vaccinated," with the lowest vaccination rates being among African Nova Scotian and Indigenous people.

The province has not provided vaccination rates of people in custody, but said Friday staff all active correctional officers and youth workers are fully vaccinated.

As of Friday's report, 20 inmates and 25 staff members at the Nova Institution for Women had tested positive for the virus.

Paul Palmeter/CBC
Paul Palmeter/CBC

Martha Paynter is the chair of Wellness Within, a non-profit organization that provides health-care advocacy for those in the correctional system.

The group has been calling for the early release of inmates at the women's prison since the outbreak was announced Tuesday, when eight inmates had been confirmed as positive.

Paynter said it is concerning to see a jump from eight to 20 in one week. In a prison that typically has about 75 people incarcerated at a time, the positive cases make up about 26 per cent of the population.

"You see people are subjected to infection, which obviously was not part of their sentence. They're unable to control their lives, their bodies, who's with them," Paynter said Friday.

"It's not like how we joke about being imprisoned by our COVID isolation … we have a lot of control over our food, our medicine. And those are all real basics that people who are in prison do not have. It's dehumanizing and it's terrifying."

Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press
Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

A spokesperson for Correctional Service Canada's Atlantic region said measures are being put in place in both prisons to curb virus spread, but they differ in each facility based on infrastructure.

In the Truro women's prison, close to 88 per cent of inmates are fully vaccinated with two doses. Boosters are being offered to those who are eligible.

CSC spokesperson Darcy LeBlanc said staff are taking rapid tests daily at the Nova Institution, and cohorts for staff and inmates have been created so people only work and interact in smaller groups.

Those who are positive are isolating within their housing units, LeBlanc said. They have their own washroom and meals delivered to their door.

"We've got very good collaboration with the women offenders that are there, which really speaks volumes in terms of how we're collectively wanting to slow the exposure," LeBlanc said Friday.

Federal prisons in N.S., N.B. closed to visitors

The federal Springhill Institution in Nova Scotia also reported one new case on Friday.

LeBlanc could not comment on whether early releases will be considered, and CBC was told Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino was not available for an interview Friday.

In New Brunswick, the federal Atlantic Institution in Renous announced 10 positive tests — three inmates and seven staff members — on Friday.

LeBlanc said that facility has also brought in measures like increased cleaning and establishing smaller groups.

A release from CSC head office from spokesperson Esme Bailey said in-person visits are temporarily suspended at all federal institutions in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

She said CSC continues to process eligible inmates for release in accordance with the law. A number of considerations go into release decision-making, with public safety being the "paramount consideration," Bailey said.

On average, 600 offenders are released each month. This happens through parole, statutory release, or expiration of sentence. Since March 1, 2020, the number of inmates in federal custody has decreased by 1,518.

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