Nova Scotia

N.S. woman speaks out about 'dehumanizing' experience in correctional facility

A Nova Scotia woman who was recorded without her consent while on remand at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional facility is calling for an inquiry into the use of health segregation at the facility.

Melody Wolfe was put in health segregation, filmed without her consent by a correctional officer

Melody Wolfe is speaking out about the use of health segregation at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility after a video taken by a correctional officer, without her consent, was posted online. (Paul Poirier/CBC)

A Nova Scotia woman who was recorded without her consent while on remand at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility is calling for an inquiry into the use of health segregation at the facility, and an end to the practice. 

Health segregation is when inmates are separated from the general jail population for reasons related to physical or mental health.

In the spring of 2020, Melody Wolfe was arrested, taken into custody and placed in health segregation at the facility in Dartmouth, N.S.

When Wolfe learned earlier this month that a recording of her in health segregation had been posted online, she decided to speak out about the experience she described as "torture."

"That period of time is forever etched in my mind as being the worst time of my life."

'I didn't know if I was going to make it out'

A little over a year ago, Wolfe was struggling with homelessness when she was arrested and taken to the correctional facility, where staff were familiar with her and her history of mental illness. 

After Wolfe was admitted, a nurse asked her if she was taking her medication and if she was suicidal. When Wolfe replied that she hadn't been able to take her medication because she'd been homeless, and had no will to live, she was directed to health segregation.

Instead of being placed in the general jail population, Wolfe said she was put in health segregation. She describes it as a room without a bed, where the lights and surveillance cameras were constantly on. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

"I was thinking, 'Oh, it's probably going to be a bit better because the word "health" was there.'" 

Instead, Wolfe said she found herself in a suicide gown in a room without a bed. Lights and surveillance cameras were constant.

When she asked staff why she wasn't placed in the general jail population, Wolfe said she never received a satisfactory answer.

Meanwhile, apart from injections for her psychiatric condition, Wolfe said she wasn't offered any treatment, including for her diabetes.

"I thought several times that I didn't know if I was going to make it out."

Wolfe said she eventually lost track of time. She said that although she was ultimately taken to court and released, the experience exacerbated her mental health problems.

"It all comes back to, if they thought I was that sick, that I couldn't be in the general population, why wasn't I in hospital?"

Once away from the facility, she attempted to put the incident behind her. 

A 'dehumanizing' experience

But that experience came rushing back earlier this month.

Wolfe received a visit from RCMP officers who were investigating a privacy breach at the facility. A correctional officer had recorded a cellphone video of the surveillance feed showing Wolfe in health segregation. 

As first reported in the Halifax Examiner, that video was then posted to social media, with a comment calling Wolfe a derogatory name and complaining about having to give her ice cream for her diabetes.

Wolfe said learning about the existence of the video as well as reading the comments was "devastating."

The Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility is located in Dartmouth, N.S. (Robert Short/CBC)

"You read somebody in that kind of authority, making those kinds of comments, it just reaffirms ... those negative thoughts. It's dehumanizing."

After writing to the Department of Justice and receiving what she described as an inadequate response, Wolfe decided to speak out. She said it was to address the privacy breach and health segregation in general.

"I thought, … 'It's more than about me at this point.' There's still other women going through that. There's no real sense of accountability.

"And I said, 'You know what, I'm gonna put my face to this. So it ends.'" 

Emma Halpern, the executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia, said Wolfe's experience is a window onto the impact of segregation.

"When you create a space where it's permitted by our government to allow humans to treat other humans in such a horrific way, is it any surprise that those people ... then dehumanize the people that they're supposedly caring for?"

Emma Halpern is executive director of the the Elizabeth Fry Society of Nova Scotia. (Dave Laughlin/CBC)

Halpern said the incident underscores why the use of segregation is particularly problematic in the context of mental health, a conclusion underscored by recent court challenges that noted that prolonged use of solitary confinement caused serious mental harm.
"If we cannot protect our public from the kinds of dehumanizing and … disrespectful and discriminatory views that were put forward in that video, then all the more reason that I completely agree and support Melody in eliminating health segregation."

Response from the province

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice said the department had quickly undertaken an internal investigation once the video came to light, and "have reinforced the importance of policies related to privacy and confirmed all training is up to date with staff." 

The statement said the department has taken actions to protect inmate privacy and prevent this from happening again, but did not specify if the officer responsible for taking the video has been identified or whether disciplinary action will be taken.

The department also said they are co-operating with an investigation by the Information and Privacy Review Officer. The statement did not address specific questions about ending the practice of health segregation. 

As for Wolfe, she said she hopes sharing her experience will bring about not only a change in policy, but will prompt people to think differently about the use of segregation. 

"Anybody who says that's OK, walk inside that cell and just say to yourself, 'If this were my wife, my daughter, my sister or my mother, would this be OK?'