Burnside jail inmates allege rights violations after lockdown

Sixteen prisoners in Nova Scotia alleged their rights were violated after being confined to a locked cell "for reasons unknown," but all complaints were dropped within days.

An entire block at the Burnside jail filed court complaints alleging unlawful detainment

An entire block of inmates in a Halifax area jail was restricted from using the common area as normal earlier in May. (Shutterstock)

An entire block of inmates at a Halifax-area jail took the unusual step of filing habeas corpus applications, formal complaints to court about unlawful detainment, to protest being locked down in their cells.

The group alleged their rights were violated after being confined to locked cells at the Central Nova Correctional Facility "for reasons unknown," as one inmate said in court documents filed May 5. Later that day, the lockdown was lifted.

The applications didn't go forward to a hearing. Half of the inmates ended up dropping the motions within days, the rest were later dismissed by a judge. Two weren't accepted by the court because they were filed without real or legible names. 

'Very mentally draining'

But the 16 applications do give insight into life behind bars.

"Being incarcerated in itself is particularly difficult," Halifax defence lawyer Eugene Tan said. "It can be very trying and it can be very mentally draining."

Tan's client, William Sandeson, filed one of the 16 applications. The man is waiting on remand for a trial date. He is charged with first-degree murder in the death of fellow Dalhousie University student Taylor Samson, whose body has not been found

"On one hand, lockdowns are often seen as a means of protecting inmates or protecting the staff," Tan said. "On the other hand … are they being penalized more than what is appropriate?"

William Sandeson is charged with first-degree murder in the death of Taylor Samson, a fellow Dalhousie University student. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

'Very poor state'

In court documents, the Justice Department said the lockdown conditions were imposed after a May 3 routine inspection.

"The common 'day room' area was found to be in a 'very poor state of cleanliness', but inmates were unwilling to follow direction and clean the area," Justice Department lawyer Peter McVey wrote in a letter to court. 

"As a result, West 4 was placed on 'top tier/bottom tier rotation', allowing one-half of the inmates on West 4 into the day room at any one time, to clean the area." The rest of the time, the inmates in that area were confined to their cells, prompting the legal action.

A common area at Central Nova Correctional Facility was left in a 'very poor state of cleanliness,' the justice department said. (CBC)

Effect on mental health

Dalhousie Legal Aid lawyer Claire McNeil, though not familiar with this particular situation, said she worries punishment might be used as an "administrative convenience" instead of safety concerns.

"The cells are very small. There's nothing to do in there," McNeil said. "There's been lots of reports and studies on the effect of that on peoples's mental health."

In fact, the federal corrections ombudsman has warned against using confinement as punishment, especially for prolonged periods of time. 

Administrative segregation, as described by the federal Office of the Correctional Investigator, is intended to maintain safety for the "shortest period of time necessary, in limited circumstances and only when there are no other reasonable or safe alternatives.

"Administrative segregation is not intended to be used as a form of punishment." 

'Insight on the difficulties'

"These rare opportunities of these habeas corpus applications give us some kind of insight on the difficulties that everyone faces in those institutions — largely it seems because of overcrowding," McNeil said.

A court decision released in December condemns overcrowding at Central Nova. Two federal inmates were kept 23 hours a day in seven-by-nine foot cells with only a bed, a stool and a toilet, it said. 

The unofficial policy of keeping federal prisoners waiting for transfers or trial away from other inmates was meant to "minimize the risk of federal offenders harming offenders and staff," according to the decision by Justice Gerald Moir. 

"Overcrowding. This is the only reason in the written record."

That policy since has been dropped as "it's contrary to the policy of a least restrictive environment," provincial corrections director Sean Kelly told CBC News Friday.

The Department of Justice and Corrections says there are about 210 to 220 inmates currently in the Central Nova Correctional Facility. (CBC)

'Dealt with in due course'

In this particular case, Kelly said the inmates had their "residual liberty" — or what freedoms are leftover while in prison during a sentence or while waiting for trial — revoked "for failing to follow the facility rules."

He said he wasn't surprised none of the complaints are moving forward, as he said the situation was resolved within two days.

"I think [the inmates] felt it was dealt with in due course," Kelly said. "The judge basically felt that they were no longer locked up, and therefore … they were no longer deprived of their residual liberty."

About the Author

Rachel Ward

Journalist

Rachel Ward is a journalist with CBC Calgary. You can reach her with questions or story ideas at rachel.ward@cbc.ca.