Nova Scotia

Advocates want Ottawa to release vulnerable inmates as COVID-19 hits N.S. women's prison

An outbreak at the Nova Scotia Institution for Women has affected roughly 10 per cent of the prison population.

Nova Institution for Women in Truro holds up to 90 people

The Nova Institution for Women reported an outbreak of COVID-19 on Tuesday. (CBC)

Inmates at the Nova Institution for Women should be considered for early release given the COVID-19 outbreak reported Tuesday, which has affected roughly 10 per cent of the prison population, an advocacy group says.

Corrections Canada said Tuesday that eight inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 at the Truro prison.

It's the largest outbreak in a Nova Scotia prison since the pandemic began, according to Martha Paynter, the chair of Wellness Within, a non-profit organization that provides health-care advocacy for those in the correctional system.

The close living quarters make it especially easy for disease to spread once it gains a foothold, Paynter said. And those who are incarcerated are at risk of more serious outcomes with COVID-19, given research showing that inmates are more likely to suffer from chronic illness.

"In an environment like that, you don't have control over your own body," said Paynter, who is also a registered nurse and health-care researcher at Dalhousie University.

"You don't get to say who comes near you … you simply do not have control to protect yourself."

That's why Paynter and Wellness Within are calling on federal Minister of Public Safety Marco Mendicino to facilitate the early release of as many inmates as possible.

The organization has also called on the federal correctional system to reconsider the practice of incarcerating women who are pregnant or are primary caregivers of children.

"Prison is a very dangerous and scary place at the best of times, and when there is an uncontained infectious disease that's potentially lethal circulating ... it's absolutely terrifying," said Paynter.

Martha Paynter of Wellness Within says that inmates don't have control over who they interact with in prison, which can be especially frightening during an outbreak. (Paul Palmeter/CBC)

While the prison can hold up to 90 inmates, Paynter said there are typically about 75 people incarcerated at a time.

There are three different levels of security, but most inmates live in general population in groups of eight. Paynter said there's also the possibility of interaction during the daily medication lineup. 

Staff must do daily rapid tests

Corrections Canada said in a news release it's taken precautions to prevent the coronavirus from spreading, including providing masks to all inmates and staff. There's also been deep-cleaning done across the facility. 

Roughly 90 per cent of the inmates at the Nova Institution for Women are fully vaccinated, according to the release, and Corrections Canada has begun offering third doses to those who received their last vaccine more than five months ago. 

In-person visits have been suspended at the prison and staff are required to do a rapid test before entering the facility for a shift.


With files from CBC's Mainstreet