CBC Investigates

Nova Scotia puts hundreds of inmates in segregation each year

Hundreds of inmates are sent to solitary confinement every year in Nova Scotia jails, a CBC News investigation has found. Whether a form of punishment or protection from other inmates, the practice can have devastating mental health consequences.

Lengthy stays in 'the hole' can have devastating effects on inmates' mental health

The hole, a solitary confinement cell, is used by jails as a form of punishment or for protection of an inmate. (Stephanie Blanchet/Radio-Canada)

Hundreds of inmates are forced into "the hole," or solitary confinement, every year in Nova Scotia jails, a CBC News investigation has found. 

Whether a form of punishment or protection from other inmates, the practice can have devastating mental health consequences.

Figures released by the Nova Scotia Department of Justice through a freedom of information request show 466 inmates were sent to segregation cells in 2014. That number shot up to 615 in 2015. This year, between January and May, 267 people were put in solitary confinement.

A justice department spokesperson said inmates may be counted more than once if they were transferred between jails while in segregation. 

Inmates call it "the hole" and lengthy stays are feared by even the most hardened criminals.

'Significant psychological harm'

Malcolm Jeffcock, a criminal defence lawyer who represented legal aid clients for over 20 years, has witnessed the effects.

"Those who were subjected to extended periods of solitary confinement have been shown to have suffered significant psychological harm at the hands of those who hold them in custody," he said. 

"It should really be a concern to the general population."

He doesn't believe there is any "rational explanation" for the practice.

Doors to cells in a jail segregation unit at the Northeast Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Priestville outside Halifax. (Stephanie Blanchet/Radio-Canada)

Shorter segregation times

The Justice Department could not say how long inmates remain in solitary or even how many people are incarcerated annually in Nova Scotia jails. 

On Friday, NDP justice critic Marian Mancini chastised Justice Minister Diane Whalen and her department for failing to document those numbers.

"If there is not tracking, then this would appear to be an apparent lack of oversight by her department," Mancini said in the provincial legislature.

"How does a minister know whether or not there are issues that need to be addressed?"

The province is working with Ottawa to look at segregation and has reduced the number of consecutive days an inmate can spend in solitary to 10 from 15, Whalen responded.

Disciplinary use

Jails do use the hole as a punishment for breaking the rules, especially in cases of violence.

"The most common disciplinary reason would be fighting and acts of violence," said Sean Kelly, director of the province's corrections services.

Kelly said he believes Nova Scotia jails are moving in the "right direction," despite the number of inmates who still end up in solitary.

Sean Kelly, the province's director of correctional services, says policies surrounding solitary confinement in Nova Scotia jails are changing. (Paul Poirier/CBC)

He cites a list of policy changes, including extra approvals required to keep inmates in segregation for longer periods.

"Typically, we'll look at the amount of time and see if that's reasonable and appropriate to the circumstances," Kelly said.

"We have more oversight in terms of review by the superintendent and then there's a more rigorous appeal process so that offenders, if they're placed in segregation for a period of time and they feel that decision was unjust, then there's an opportunity for them to appeal that to a higher authority."

Court ruling

The Central Nova Correctional Facility in Burnside, the largest provincial jail in the province, had the highest number of incidences of inmates going into isolation, with 181 in 2014 and 250 in 2015.

A court decision in the case of Dylan Gogan and Dylan Roach last December highlighted one reason for the spike.

The case hinged on concerns about segregation at the Burnside jail, specifically when it comes to federal inmates. They are offenders already serving federal prison sentences but who are transferred to provincial jails because they are still appearing in court on other charges.

Gogan and Roach, both federal inmates, were automatically sent to segregation because of jail policy.

Ruling in favour of inmates

Justice Gerald Moir, who heard the case, ruled in favour of the inmates after they made habeas corpus applications. Habeas corpus is a recourse in law challenging the reasons or conditions of a person's confinement. 

"Mr. Gogan and Mr. Roach are confined 23 hours a day for reasons that have nothing to do with them as individuals," Moir wrote in his decision.

"They are between arraignments and trials, and they have been remanded to Burnside rather than back to Renous, the federal penitentiary."

Jason MacLean, a former Nova Scotia corrections officer, now president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, says jail staff are concerned about mental health issues among inmates. (David Laughlin/CBC)

A staff email presented to the court showed the Burnside institution implemented a policy in December 2014 that enforced the automatic lockdown of all federal inmates.

Kelly told CBC News that is no longer the practice in Nova Scotia jails.

Jail staff concerns

The mental health of inmates in solitary is also a concern for jail staff.

Jason MacLean, president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, has seen the impact on vulnerable inmates first-hand at the Cape Breton Correctional Facility where he worked for two decades.

"The system isn't equipped to deal with mental health issues," he said.

"It's only recently in the last couple of years that you have a social worker that is on site at most of the facilities, so the system is trying catch-up but it's going very slowly and I do believe that people with mental health issues are left hanging out there without any proper help."

However, MacLean believes there is a need for segregation cells in Nova Scotia jails.

"I don't necessarily believe that the province or the people working in corrections are abusing the segregation cells because they're held accountable for what reports they write as to why somebody got put into segregation," he said.

"I can't stress it enough that people aren't put in isolation just because they can be. There has to be reasons."

With files from Karissa Donkin