Here's a look inside Nova Scotia's largest jail

One unit will be converted to the direct supervision model, which allows direct contact between inmates and guards.

One unit converted to direct supervision model, which allows direct contact between inmates and guards

Renovations in the north unit at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Centre are nearing completion. (Robert Short/CBC)

The first stage of major renovations at Nova Scotia's largest jail is nearing completion, but the union representing correctional officers is worried about their safety.

The north unit at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Centre in the Burnside Industrial Park in Dartmouth has been undergoing a $6.8-million renovation to convert the cell block to a direct supervision model.

A reinforced desk has been constructed right on the floor of a day room that will eventually house up to 62 inmates. They will have direct contact with the guards working at that desk.

Direct supervision model

"It reduces the number of incidents or conflicts that exist on any given day room in any given correctional facility in Canada," Supt. Tim Carroll said of the changes. "It reduces the severity of those conflicts and it reduces the duration of those conflicts."

The renovations will allow for direct supervision, a model that gives inmates direct contact with guards. (Robert Short/CBC)

But the president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union disagrees. Jason MacLean was a correctional officer for 22 years.

"Ultimately, direct supervision in Nova Scotia I don't believe will work," MacLean said. "This is a conversation I've been having with the minister of justice as well."

Resources not there, union says

MacLean said the model works in jurisdictions where there are emergency response teams and other supports ready to respond immediately to any problem that might develop. He said Nova Scotia doesn't have the resources to provide that support.

The union representing correctional officers is worried about their safety under the new model of direct supervision. (Blair Rhodes/CBC)

MacLean said it was only at the insistence of the union that a door was installed behind the guard desk to ensure correctional staff had an escape route for emergencies.

Carroll said "there is always a risk" in a correctional environment.

"We are not working at Chapters. We are mitigating the risk. We do everything we can to reduce the risk."

'It makes it safer'

Carroll and other jail supervisors said the direct supervision model lessens the possibility of conflict with inmates because the guards in the day room build up a rapport with the people they're guarding.

The renovation to the cell block has cost $6.8 million. (Robert Short/CBC)

"It makes it safer and it makes the staff approachable, a source of information for anything that the inmate might need," said Jim Hayman, a 27-year veteran corrections officer and a trainer who's instructed other corrections staff on the direct supervision model.

"We don't do the intermittent rounds in direct supervision," Hayman said. "We're in there for active and continuous supervision."

When tensions do spill over, however, Carroll said the jail is prepared. He said the first line of defence is for staff to try to regain control of the situation simply by talking to the inmates.

Tasers, pepper balls, body scanners

If that fails, he said staff are trained and ready to deploy Tasers and pepper balls to contain the situation. Pepper balls are capsules of the same ingredient as pepper spray and can be dropped into the day room to subdue any uprising.

"Correctional services takes safety of all staff, correctional officers, managers and support staff very seriously," Carroll said. "We do everything we can to ensure their safety yet recognizing we're working in an unsafe environment."

The jail is also installing two body scanners.

Phones at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Centre. (Robert Short/CBC)

The devices will be used to take X-ray images of any inmates entering the facility to prevent them from smuggling in any contraband. Authorities claim the devices have been successful at intercepting up to 98 per cent of contraband in other jurisdictions.

The scanners will also be installed at the provincial jails in Yarmouth, Cape Breton and Pictou at a cost of $198,000 each. That cost includes training for staff.

Once work is complete on the north unit, renovations will begin on the west unit, which is the other part of the jail housing men.

As the newest of the four provincial jails, the direct supervision model was incorporated into the Northeast Nova Scotia Correctional Centre in Pictou when it was being built. No decision has been made yet on when or if similar changes will be implemented at the other two provincial jails.

About the Author

Blair Rhodes

Reporter

Blair Rhodes has been a journalist for more than 34 years, the last 25 with CBC. His primary focus is on stories of crime and public safety.