Senator says tour of N.S., N.B. prisons revealed hopelessness, despair

After a touring prisons in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, a Nova Scotia senator says her committee is more dedicated than ever to investigating the conditions facing inmates in federal facilities in Canada.

Wanda Thomas Bernard says committee studying rights of prisoners across Canada

Inmates can make phone calls from this cell at the Springhill Insitution in Springhill, N.S. (Senate of Canada)

After touring prisons in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, Nova Scotia senator Wanda Thomas Bernard said her human rights committee is more determined than ever to investigate the conditions facing inmates in federal facilities in Canada. 

"One of the things that really stood out for me during that study ... was learning from prisoners themselves that they were watching," Bernard told CBC's Information Morning.

She said a man in one of the institutions told her he couldn't believe the Senate was interested "in knowing about" the lives of inmates.

Four senators took part in the tour, which included the East Coast Forensic Hospital, a provincially run psychiatric facility in Dartmouth, N.S., that deals with mentally ill offenders.

It's part of a two-year Senate study on the rights of inmates in prisons. There were approximately 14,310 inmates in federal custody last year, according to a Senate report.  

A view of two residents in the exercise yard at the East Coast Forensic Hospital. (Senate of Canada)

Members of the Senate's human rights committee have also visited prisons in Ontario and Quebec, and will soon be touring facilities in the Western provinces. The committee is also studying alternative models in Norway and Scotland. 

Before the Atlantic tour, the Senate hosted a public consultation at the Black Cultural Centre in Cherry Brook, N.S.

A restraint bed in a utility room at the Nova Institution for Women in Truro, N.S. (Senate of Canada)

Bernard, the chair of the human rights committee, said the senators heard at that consultation that inmates of African descent often experience racism while incarcerated.

After hearing that black inmates who wear do-rags are assumed to belong to gangs, Bernard decided to raise awareness during the Senate tour. 

"I wear a do-rag myself, and ... it's something that's culturally specific, not gang related," she said. "I have one, so I decided that I was going to wear it during the prison visit. And there were at least two or three black prisoners that saw me with the do-rag and thanked me for wearing it."

Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard looks at a cell at the Dorchester Penitentiary in Dorchester, N.B. After hearing that prison staff saw do-rags as gang symbols, Bernard wore one to raise awareness about its cultural significance. (Senate of Canada)

Over the course of their mission, Bernard said they saw a high level of hopelessness and despair.

While there are some culturally specific programs for Indigenous inmates, who are over-represented in the correctional system, Bernard said there are no programs tailored to black inmates. Blacks are also over-represented in Canadian prisons.

A complaint box for inmates at the Atlantic Institution in Renous, N.B. The sticker reads: 'Correctional officers never start the fights. But we always finish them.' (Senate of Canada)

Bernard said many of the inmates reported a lack of opportunity for education and training. 

"Many people told us they just don't have enough to do, so there's far too much time spent idle," she said. "And coming out of prison without having marketable, employable skills makes them more vulnerable to reoffend."

The Senate study will wrap up later this year. Bernard said the committee hopes to have an interim report prepared before it breaks for the summer.

"We really want to make this information as readily available to the Canadian public as possible."