Most COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted in Nova Scotia, but some inmates at the province's largest federal prison say they're still living under lockdown for weeks at a time.
Inmates at the Springhill Institution near Amherst told CBC Radio's Mainstreet that some people at the facility have spent up to five consecutive weeks in their cells or pods after a positive COVID-19 test in their unit.
They say when this happens they can't take part in work or educational programming. They worry about the impact it will have on their ability to get parole.
"It's almost like hell in here right now, with these rules and these restrictions," inmate Michael Maillet said in a recent interview.
Corrections Canada said an inmate can be placed on medical isolation for a number of reasons, including if they've tested positive for COVID, are symptomatic "or if they have been identified as a high-risk contact of a COVID-19 case."
The length of time an inmate who tests negative has to isolate — or be on "modified routine" — depends on their vaccination status, it said.
Inmates who have not received a booster dose and test negative on the seventh day of isolation must continue to isolate for at least 10 days from the date of the most recent exposure. Inmates who've had a booster and still test negative on the fifth day can leave medical isolation as early as the following day.
Outside of the Springhill Institution, Nova Scotians who contract COVID-19 can leave isolation seven days after the onset of symptoms or a positive test if their symptoms have been improving for at least 24 hours.
"The fastest way to get released from this lockdown is to just have COVID, so a lot of people, including myself, are purposefully trying to get COVID," said Maillet, who was negative at the time of the interview.
The mental health impacts of the restrictions far outweigh the health risks, Maillet said, and he's among a group of inmates who've signed petitions and are calling on the correctional service to lift the restrictions.
What lockdown is like
When the Omicron wave first hit Nova Scotia late last fall, Maillet said the correctional service suspended most work and educational programs.
He said he applied for parole, but his parole worker wouldn't support his application because he hadn't completed programming.
"The fact that I'm purposefully trying to catch a potentially deadly disease speaks volumes ... and not being able to see my family causes certain depression-type feelings," Maillet said.
When they're in medical isolation, inmates can't have visitors and time outside is limited, said inmate Jerry Crews.
"Anything that an inmate would normally have access to for any kind of mental relief or coping strategy has been removed. They're locked in their cells and they're left to deal with their own issues," Crews said.
Crews said like most Nova Scotians, inmates at Springhill have gotten very good at following public health protocols, such as frequent handwashing and wearing masks.
He agreed with COVID-19 measures at the start of the pandemic, but he said they've been given no information about why the restrictions haven't changed, and whether they'll be lifted.
"This current variant and these variants that are here today are not such … deadly variants that we need to have five weeks of being locked up in a cell. It's not necessary," Crews said.
Corrections Canada responds
A spokesperson for the correctional service said in an emailed statement that its use of medical isolation "adheres to public health principles and we continuously review its use and implementation at our institutions as the pandemic evolves and changes to minimize the risk."
Masking, vaccinations and enhanced cleaning are also in place, it said.
The correctional service said that when an inmate is in isolation "all reasonable efforts" are made to provide them with time outside of their cell or room.
"With respect to Springhill in particular, we have offered programs to inmates in cohort situations," it said. "We continue to explore options to ensure offenders are receiving programs in a timely manner."
According to the correctional service, the outbreak at Springhill is improving, and there are now three active cases.
Concern about confinement in provincial institutions
The East Coast Prison Justice Society advocates for inmates at provincial institutions, and co-chair Sheila Wildeman said the group has been hearing from people who are at a breaking point.
"COVID has added to these pre-existing lockdown problems," she told Mainstreet.
Some inmates say they're spending 22-24 hours in their cells a day, for weeks on end, Wildeman said.
"Callers have repeatedly raised concerns about mounting tensions in the facility due to lockdowns, but also increasing numbers inside," she said.
Members of the East Coast Prison Justice Society are scheduled to meet with Nova Scotia correctional officials on Monday to talk about a report that was released last summer about confinement in provincial jails.
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