Inside the big house: Tour the Nova Scotia prison that just turned 50

The Springhill Institution opened on Sept. 30, 1967. It has apartment-style housing, a wood and metal shop, and a type of in-house retreat that is the first of its kind in Canada.

Springhill Institution is a medium-security prison that can house almost 560 inmates

A corridor at the Springhill Institution. (Patrick Callaghan/CBC)

Although they weren't open to answering tough questions and the inmates remained mostly out of sight, staff at the federal penitentiary in Springhill, N.S., opened the institution's doors this week to reveal how it looks 50 years after opening.

Members of the media were given a tightly-controlled two-hour tour of the facility on Thursday, which included a look at accommodations, work spaces for inmates, and a type of in-house retreat that is the first of its kind in Canada.

No cell phones are allowed inside the facility, which houses 378 medium-security male inmates, but can hold 558.

To enter the facility, reporters had to walk through a metal detector, get a pat down and have their bags X-rayed. They were forbidden from recording audio or video between stops on the tour. Recording video of the fences surrounding the facility was also forbidden due to security concerns. 

The Springhill Institution presently houses about 375 medium-security, male inmates. (Patrick Callaghan/CBC)

Searching for contraband

The first stop was a demonstration by a drug detection dog named Red, and his handler Mike Moss. The black lab was rewarded with a toy after he sniffed out a piece of illicit contraband.

Moss said the smallest amount of drugs Red has ever managed to find was 0.01 grams of hash, "not much bigger than a pinhead."

Contraband is found at the facility on a regular basis, Moss said. How often it's discovered "depends on the trends that are going on within the institution," he said.

Red has not been trained to sniff out opioids like fentanyl because, Moss said, "that's a new field" for handlers and they haven't figured out how to avoid risking serious injury.

Drug detection dogs like Red have not been trained to sniff out fentanyl because it's too dangerous. (Patrick Callaghan/CBC)

Apartment-style living

One of the institution's newer buildings houses 12 shared apartments called pods. Each pod accommodates eight inmates who qualify to live in a communal space. They each have their own bedroom and share a common living area, washroom and kitchen.

The idea is to "learn to get along" in a shared space, said Carolanne Coon, the manager of assessment and intervention. Some inmates learn to cook in the pods, she said.

One pod is dedicated to Indigenous offenders and the walls there are covered with their artwork, Coon said. These inmates have access to an elder "to help them with their healing journey," she said.

Each resident of a pod gets his own bedroom, but he shares a communal kitchen, washroom and living area with seven others. (Patrick Callaghan/CBC)
Each building contains 12 shared apartments, called pods. (Patrick Callaghan/CBC)

Unique retreat

In the middle of the property is a small bungalow with skylights and planter boxes. Called St. Luke's Renewal Centre, the building serves as a 24-hour retreat for inmates serving long sentences.

It gives them a chance to get "a reprieve, or a time out from the population," said assistant warden Shannon Oickle. "You won't find anything like it in the country," she added.

The renewal centre was started by Acadia University's Charles Taylor, who is considered by many to be a pioneer in the field of prison ministry.

St. Luke's Renewal Centre offers a 24-hour retreat to long-term offenders. (Patrick Callaghan/CBC)
Phones in one of the common areas at the Springhill Institution. (Patrick Callaghan/CBC)
A gate overlooking the chapel and the library. (Patrick Callaghan/CBC)

Inside the workshop

The last stop on the tour is the Corrections and Conditional Release Regulations (CORCAN) Industries building, where inmates learn to work with wood and metal, building furniture for government departments and refurbishing trucks and military tanks.

The real lessons are the social ones, said cabinetmaker instructor Mark O'Keefe, who has worked at the institution for about nine years.

"Working with people, managing your emotions, showing up for work on time" and "being able to put in a good day's work" are transferable skills when it comes to getting a job outside of the prison walls, he said.

"Even if you only make a difference in one person out of 10, it's a good feeling," said O'Keefe.

An inmate stains a board in the wood shop. (Patrick Callaghan/CBC)
Offenders build furniture and refurbish vehicles in the shop. (Patrick Callaghan/CBC)

With files from CBC Information Morning