Nova Scotia to ban practice of ‘dry celling’ in jails

Nova Scotia is banning “dry celling” in its jails, doing away with a practice that places prisoners suspected of hiding contraband inside their bodies under strict surveillance at all times.

Justice Minister Mark Furey said Thursday the province believes that body scanning technology has reduced the need for it and the practice will be eliminated in provincial correctional facilities.

The move comes two months after Lisa Adams, a Saint John woman incarcerated in a federal prison in Nova Scotia, spoke out against the practice and launched a court case attempting to have it banned across the country in federal institutions. Her lawyers argued it was unconstitutional and inhumane.

The dry cell is used when an inmate is suspected of ingesting drugs, weapons or other contraband or inserting it into a body cavity. The cell has round-the-clock lighting and no flushing toilet or running water. The inmate is watched by guards 24 hours a day, on the expectation the item will come out in the person’s bodily waste.

Days after CBC and other media reported on Adams’ case, Furey announced that he was initiating a review of the provincial policy. Provincial jails in Nova Scotia use dry cells in a similar manner to federal prisons.

“As a result of the review and the work we’ve done, Correctional Services here in the province is in the process of updating our policies and we will actually eliminate the use of dry cells in provincial correctional facilities,” Furey said after a cabinet meeting Thursday.

The ban on dry cells will only cover jails in Nova Scotia, such as the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Burnside (shown here) and the Cape Breton Correctional Facility in Sydney.(Robert Short/CBC)

In 2018, the province started buying body scanners for its adult facilities, with the first five scanners budgeted at a cost of about $1 million.

“These body scanners have been found to significantly reduce the number of incidents of contraband coming into the facility,” Furey said.

He cited the scanners as “one of the biggest contributing factors” to the decision to ban dry cells.

“We believe within the environment of the facility we can isolate those individuals without utilizing the dry cell approach,” he said.

The ban on dry cells will only cover jails in Nova Scotia such as the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Burnside or the Cape Breton Correctional Facility in Sydney.

It will not cover federal facilities such as Nova Institution for Women in Truro, where Adams was serving a two-year sentence for drug trafficking.

However, the Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia, which backed Adams’ legal challenge to federal dry cells, is hopeful the provincial change will add strength to the organization’s case.

“There were many things raised in our case that would be applicable to the context of someone being dry celled here in this province,” said executive director Emma Halpern, noting that a provincial government lawyer was in court to watch the Adams case.

“In our minds, [that] certainly had some bearing on this decision that came out today.”

Emma Halper, the executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia, is hopeful the provincial change will add strength to the organization’s case. (David Laughlin/CBC)

Halpern worries that the use of body scanners is not perfect and it’s not clear to her exactly how the province plans to remove contraband from inmates if it is found.

“That said, in this moment we can feel pleased. And we can feel excited and motivated and hopeful, that we can see a turning of the tides in terms of the use of extraordinarily oppressive practices within our correctional systems,” she said.

In 2012, the former federal correctional investigator recommended an “absolute prohibition” on putting people in dry cells beyond 72 hours. The recommendation was reissued in 2019-2020. At the federal level, the Correctional Service of Canada declined to fully institute the recommendation.

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