Nova Scotia·CBC Investigates

The filth and fears inside one wing of Nova Scotia's largest jail

Documents show guards at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility were so fearful for their own safety that for two stretches last year they refused to work in a section of the west wing. The provincial Labour Department ordered changes.

For two stretches last year guards refused to work in a section of Central Nova, citing safety concerns

Former correctional officer Richard Biggar said he quit his job of nearly nine years at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility due to ongoing safety concerns and frustrations. (Brian MacKay/CBC)

Richard Biggar says he's seen it all.

Coworkers bleeding from stab wounds or knocked unconscious. Faces smeared with feces. An inmate hanging in a cell. He himself was punched in the face and soaked with tossed urine. He's grateful it wasn't worse.

After nearly nine years, Biggar resigned in May from his position as a correctional officer at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Dartmouth, N.S. He says he could no longer work in a "toxic environment" he doesn't consider safe.

"People need to start caring because people are being hurt every day in there. Mentally and physically. Inmates and staff," he said in an interview.

His concerns are echoed in documents, obtained by CBC News through freedom-of-information laws, that detail two stretches last year where correctional officers refused to work in a section of the jail, citing safety concerns. Inmates had to remain in their cells.

The records, which are heavily redacted, reveal how the provincial Labour Department ordered jail management to improve safety measures. They also describe concerns over a filthy common room and lack of training to work with mentally ill inmates.

Nova Scotia's Department of Justice initially asked CBC News to pay $1,500 for the documents but eventually provided them for free, agreeing it was in the public interest to do so.

The Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility on May 15. The medium-security facility has a capacity of 322 male and 48 female offenders. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Open since 2001, the medium-security facility in Burnside Industrial Park is Nova Scotia's largest and busiest jail.

High-risk federal offenders pass through while awaiting court appearances in Halifax. Some inmates serve weekend sentences, while others have long records of violence or issues with mental health. About a third of inmates aren't serving sentences and are simply waiting, sometimes for months, for their cases to inch their way through the court system.

For years, there's been problems with outbreaks of violence between inmates and against staff. This spring, Nova Scotia Auditor General Michael Pickup raised concerns about training and screening of staff.

The newly released records detail how in one case, in June 2017, guards refused to work in a common area where inmates mingle. There was no way to escape the West 5 day room in an emergency, they said, the desk where they worked could be easily splintered and used as a weapon, and they were equipped with poor radios.

A day room in the jail is shown following a recent renovation. (Robert Short/CBC)

The Labour Department subsequently ordered jail management ensure the workstation was close to an exit door with a "duress button" within an arm's reach.

Occupational health and safety officers also found the jail had failed to properly maintain the radios guards use to communicate, including the "man down" function, a button that alerts the control room someone is in trouble. Management was ordered to ensure staff tested the radios every 12 hours and had up-to-date-training.

​Following the work refusals, Tim Carroll, the jail's superintendent, wrote in emails that 23 radios hadn't been working properly and officers in the West 5 day room now had new two-way radios with "person down" buttons. Management ordered the same model for the rest of the jail.

The NSGEU organized a rally for Burnside jail employees in June 2017 over concerns about their safety because of the proposed supervision changes at the facility. (Carolyn Ray/CBC)

On June 12, 2017, the Labour Department also ordered the West 5 day room be cleaned by professionals within three weeks. It said the employer also needed to "maintain the standard of cleanliness on a level that is reasonably practicable."

In emails, management questioned whether hiring outside cleaners was necessary, at one point calling it "problematic," before eventually doing so.

While staff would do some cleaning work, Biggar said, typically inmates receive a small amount of canteen money to mop up a mess. Cleanliness was a longstanding problem, he said.

"Dried blood on the walls, feces, vomit, anything gross you can't think of, food, everything on the walls," he said. "It's disgusting that we allow that, but it's the norm."

In August, after lodging formal complaints about the problem and his expired use-of-force training, Biggar said he was disciplined over attendance. The Department of Labour investigated the discipline, but found no evidence it was linked to the complaints.

Biggar, a father of four young children, said he tried not to think about the health risks associated with working around potentially infectious bodily fluids.

"Now that I'm out of there, wow, I could never walk back in. But, like I said, when you're living it, that's your life, that's your livelihood."

Sean Kelly, the director of correctional services with the Department of Justice, admits keeping the facility clean can be a challenge. 

"I think it could be better, to be honest," he said in an interview, adding they're always looking at strategies, including bringing in contract cleaners.

"Obviously, we only do so when we absolutely have to because there's extra costs involved." 

Sean Kelly, Nova Scotia's director of corrections, said management is always trying to assess safety concerns and mitigate risk. (CBC)

The spring 2017 work refusals started in May and continued for several weeks. They were prompted, in part, by the beginning of a "direct supervision" model in the West 5 day room.

The model requires guards to work in a common room bordered by open cells, supervising up to 46 inmates. It's already being used at the Northeast Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Pictou, and at many correctional facilities in Canada.

But with the exception of one area, the jail in Burnside has always operated through remote supervision — where staff monitor common areas using security cameras and correctional officers do rounds every half hour.

On June 4, 2017, several correctional officers submitted concerns. They said the mix of inmates, including sex offenders, people in protective custody and a group with mental health issues temporarily relocated to the wing, was dangerous for officers on the floor.

A second large work refusal in November lasted two days and was also tied to the shift toward direct supervision. Correctional officers refused to open up a common area in the west unit because they were concerned about staffing levels.

Biggar, who was one of the officers that lodged a complaint in June, said staff were bracing for violence between inmates who typically didn't interact.

"You can't put low-risk inmates with mental-health needs right next door to the hardest gangsters in the Maritimes and then expect a correctional officer to go in and navigate and manage," he said.

The medium-security facility in Burnside is Nova Scotia’s largest and busiest jail. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Management is still moving toward implementing direct supervision at the jail following renovations that are part of a $6.8 million overhaul of the facility.

Day rooms in the north wing have already been renovated. Similar work is planned for the west unit, which also houses male inmates. Kelly said a violence risk assessment on direct supervision is due to be completed any day, and direct supervision can begin in the renovated day rooms after management reviews it. 

Kelly said staff have received specialized training to work in the common rooms, which was one of the recommendations the Labour Department made following the 2017 work refusals. He said assessments are continually done to determine if inmates are compatible and some may be moved around as a result.

One of the benefits of direct supervision, he said, is that correctional officers will monitor inmates at all times, keeping an eye on anything that develops in hopes of intervening quickly.

"For instance, someone may have had a bad phone call and staff pick up on the subtleties of their behaviour," he said. "[Staff] can be there within seconds and typically the encounter would not be as long."

Jason MacLean, president of the union that represents provincial corrections workers, said members are concerned about their safety. (CBC)

But one year after the massive work refusal, the union that represents corrections workers still has concerns about direct supervision.

Jason MacLean, president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, said he's concerned management isn't planning to station enough staff in the common areas, one of the issues raised last November.

"Somebody will get killed if changes aren't made with the department," said MacLean, himself a former correction officer in Cape Breton.

The Department of Justice said it took steps to avoid work refusals this past weekend. Offenders serving intermittent sentences spent much of the weekend in their cells because the risk assessment on direct supervision still isn't complete, the department confirmed in a statement Monday evening.

MacLean said staff agreed to rotate the inmates in and out of a common area to ensure they were able to get out and move around a bit.

Last week, the union president and a handful of correctional officers met with Kelly, Chief Supt. John Scoville and Karen Hudson, the deputy minister of justice, about safety concerns.

After the meeting, MacLean said they also addressed staff morale and mental health, and he was hopeful they could work together going forward. 

Cells are seen during a media tour of renovations at the jail. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

The Department of Justice said since April 1, inmates assaulted staff eight times. The previous fiscal year there were 20 such assaults. Inmate-on-inmate violence is more common. There were 112 assaults recorded in the 2017-2018 year and 13 since April.

Kelly said management is always working to protect staff and inmates.

"You have inmates in the community who act out violently and they get removed from that community and placed into custody, so often they'll behave in a very similar way when they're placed inside," he said. "But we have well-trained, well-equipped staff on an ongoing basis. And we do very well at it."

Last August, Biggar was assaulted while escorting an inmate up a flight of stairs. He said the man, who was later sentenced to 30 days for the incident, was agitated and pushed him with both hands.

Though he wasn't injured, it was a turning point for Biggar. When he returned to work he said he filed several occupational health and safety complaints.

Biggar said he decided to share his experiences in hopes of making things safer for his former colleagues. One of the factors that led to his resignation, he said, was frustration with the way his employer handled violent incidents.

He said management wasn't supportive. Correctional workers felt "helpless and trapped," he said, and made to feel guilty for taking time off when they needed it.

"It absolutely needs a flashlight shined into that place. People need to know what's going on in there."

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Elizabeth McMillan is a journalist with CBC in Halifax. Over the past 13 years, she has reported from the edge of the Arctic Ocean to the Atlantic Coast and loves sharing people's stories. Please send tips and feedback to

With files from Blair Rhodes and Susan Allen