Burnside jail staff assaulted 93 times over 3-year period

Inmates at Nova Scotia's largest jail attacked correctional guards nearly 100 times over a three-year period, with staff facing everything from beatings to being pelted with feces, according to documents obtained by CBC News.

Assaults range from punching to throwing feces to biting and spitting on guards

The Department of Justice says there are between 210 and 220 staff who work at the Central Nova Correctional Facility. (CBC)

Inmates at Nova Scotia's largest jail attacked correctional guards nearly 100 times over a three-year period, with staff facing everything from beatings to being pelted with feces, according to documents obtained by CBC News.

Handwritten incident reports released under freedom of information laws show assaults at the Burnside jail in Dartmouth range from inmates spitting on and biting guards, to repeatedly punching them in the face. 

Between Jan. 1, 2013, and Dec. 31, 2015, there were 93 reported assaults on staff and about 493 assaults between inmates at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility.

The most severe assaults sent staff to hospital but it's not clear how many cases led to criminal charges. Closed confinement was often recommended as a punishment, but the details were redacted from the documents. 

Officers beaten, pepper sprayed

In September 2014, following the longest lockdown the jail had experienced up until that point, offenders attacked and injured two staff members during a "melee" in a day room. The reports describe the assaults as serious. 

A report from February 2015 describes an inmate taking a guard's pepper spray and using it on officers while a group of inmates "trashed" a day room. An inmate also threatened staff with a broom before being pepper sprayed and restrained. Two officers who responded were treated in hospital and inmates were charged

Jason MacLean, a vice-president with the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union who also has worked as a correctional officer in Cape Breton, says extra staff and caution in common areas can ensure guards don't get hurt. (CBC)

Some days there were multiple reports of assaults. On one, in April 2015, a correctional officer was repeatedly punched in the face and pushed toward a staircase. Another report details how an officer was hit in the head while attempting to hand an inmate a mattress and there were reports of inmates spitting on staff.

Urine, feces, trays, food and phones are all cited as items offenders flung at staff, according the reports. 

"I'm disappointed, not necessarily surprised being in corrections for 20 years," said Jason MacLean, a vice president with the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees union, which represents correctional workers.

Accumulated trauma

He says assaults are not inevitable, despite the risks. Their frequency at the Burnside jail should be a "red flag" that there are problems in the facility, which he says is known as the most dangerous jail in the province. 

MacLean suspects that given the culture of corrections, many incidents don't get written up. But he says witnessing bloody fights and being the target of violence takes its psychological toll on workers. 

"Event after event after event, things that do happen weigh on our staff, weigh on our members. It accumulates over time."  

The department says there are currently 210 people working at the jail and last month there was about 272 inmates.

Moving inmates challenging

Some incident reports described inmates becoming agitated when being moved. Last May, an inmate who had to undergo a strip search started punching a correctional officer in the face. In another, a handcuffed inmate used his body to slam a guard against a door. 

"One of the most trying times for an offender is when a staff member may come in and say your name and say your name and, 'Hey I need to move you,' or, 'Hey you need to go here,'" MacLean said. 

He says extra staff or reducing the number of inmates in an area can help prevent violence from erupting

MacLean says the union is working with the jail's management to ensure staff are trained and there are enough people on duty, but he says praise for more workers on a regular basis would go a long way to boosting morale. 

"Working in a correctional facility isn't easy for anybody," he said. "Living in a correctional facility isn't easy for anyone, but I think to lose the fact that this is a person that's doing a job, that actually benefits your job as a manager, I think that can't be lost."

Incidents down, province says

The province said while 93 assaults are serious, the number of violent incidents is actually down at Burnside. 

"In fact incidents are down, reportedly by about 70 per cent over the last couple of years," said Sean Kelly, Nova Scotia's director of correctional services.  

The incident reports obtained by CBC News, however, show the number of assaults on staff has remained steady over three years.

Kelly said any assault on staff is immediately reported to police.  

Halifax Regional Police provided a breakdown Tuesday of how many calls they responded to at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility over the last three years. The calls cover all types of incidents, not just staff assaults. 

  • In 2015 there were 617 calls to the facility
  • In 2014 there were 520 calls to the facility      
  • In 2013 there were 455 calls to the facility

Changes have been made to reduce the population in Burnside and currently the facility is only at about 70 per cent capacity, according to Kelly.  

He disagrees with the union about the need for extra staff to reduce violence inside the jail.

"We're very mindful of staffing in the province and we have appropriate staff in place to deal with whatever situation staff have to deal with." 

Kelly said sometimes having too many staff creates its own problems. 

"There's too many people responding to a particular incident they can actually get in the way and actually lead to confusion and in fact chaos," he said.