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Nova -- The Shackling of Expectations

The last institution visited in the Atlantic Region was Nova, the new regional institution for women. The opening of the new regional institutions late in the 1990s was intended to usher in a new era in Corrections, following along the path charted by Creating Choices, the 1990 report of the Task Force on Federally Sentenced Women. That Report had added its voice to the long list of those who had previously called for the closure of the Prison for Women and its replacement with smaller regional institutions to enable federally sentenced women to be close to their communities and families. Creating Choices, however, had not just recommended new architecture; it also urged that a new, women-centred correctional philosophy should govern the operation of these prisons, based upon principles that called for empowerment, meaningful and responsible choices, respect and dignity, a supportive environment, and shared responsibilities. The Correctional Service of Canada had endorsed the principles recommended by Creating Choices and the new regional prisons were constructed with the legitimate expectation that they would form both the architectural and conceptual foundation for fundamental change.

That expectation was dampened with remarkable speed. In her Report, Madam Justice Arbour, in describing the correctional context for what happened at the Prison for Women in 1994, made this trenchant comment:

In broad terms, the response of the Correctional Service to the incidents which took place at the Prison for Women on April 22, 1994 and the many months that followed, is difficult to reconcile with the spirit of Creating Choices which was concurrently animating its entire strategy for dealing with women offenders. Nearly every step that was taken in response to this incident was at odds with the intent of the new initiatives. (Arbour, p. 24)

The Edmonton Institution for Women was the first of the new regional facilities to open. Nova institution in Truro, Nova Scotia, was the second. In their first months of operation, both experienced major incidents where the response of the Correctional Service of Canada, in the minds of many critics, undermined the founding principles upon which the institutions were built.

Nova Institution, like the other new regional facilities, is organized around a series of cottage-style housing in which women are encouraged to be self-sufficient in taking care of their day-to-day needs. The only part of the institution that approximates to the traditional concept of a prison is the "enhanced housing unit" which contains individual cells. One of the primary functions of the enhanced units is to provide the security and safety traditionally served by segregation units, although in some of the institutions it is also used during the reception and orientation period for newly admitted prisoners.

A week before the visit of the Task Force to Nova Institution, there was a major prisoner disturbance. On September 5, 1996 the warden made the decision to segregate three prisoners, on the basis of their activities in one of the housing units the evening before. Later in the day, a disturbance erupted in the enhanced housing unit with prisoners lighting fires, flooding and damaging their cells and being verbally aggressive and abusive. Four prisoners damaged their cells to the extent that they could not be used. Based upon a concern that prisoners in these cells might use the damaged items to construct weapons, the cell extraction team was deployed and the prisoners were removed from the cells, searched and returned to their cell with the restraint gear removed and clothed in paper gowns. Subsequently, a decision was made to transfer the four prisoners to the Provincial St. John Regional Correction Centre. The chronology of these incidents, involving as they did disruptive behaviour by prisoners in segregation, cell extraction, strip searching and ultimately transfers, had the same contours as the incidents at the Prison for Women in 1994. On this occasion, there was no unlawful cross-gender searching but, based upon the findings of the CSCs Board of Investigation, there were serious violations of the legal requirements for segregation and transfer:

Of the five inmates in question, only two received their segregation notices . . . Given that the warden was on site and made the decision to segregate, it is reasonable to suggest that the inmates should have received their notices at the time they were placed in segregation. As well, it is at this time that they would be advised of their right to legal counsel. There is no evidence to indicate they were advised of their right to access legal counsel without delay, at any point in the process.

The rationale on the segregation notices for [three prisoners] was insufficient. The notices provided a reason, stating section 31 of the CCRA ; however, this reason is not substantiated with supporting rationale, in accordance with Corrections and Conditional Regulations para. 19 and CD 590, para. 21. (Report of the Board of Investigation pertaining to major inmate disturbance at Nova Institution, 1996.09.05 Correctional Service of Canada, 1997. pp. 33-6)

One week after the Task Force visit to Nova, there was another incident in which a prisoner was taken to the enhanced unit and left there naked, in restraints, shackled to a bed, without a mattress, for several hours. This resulted in both an administrative and disciplinary investigation and the re-assignment of the warden to other duties at Regional Headquarters. The Disciplinary Board of Investigation came to these conclusions:

While staff verbalised their awareness and knowledge of certain relevant Commissioner Directives, Regional Instructions, provisions of the CCRA and references to the Security Manual, their actions demonstrated they were uncertain of their specific roles, responsibilities and authorities. The result was that [the prisoner] was segregated for approximately three hours before even being issued a mattress or any acceptable form of body covering . . .

Furthermore, [the prisoner] was confined by restraint equipment, including handcuffs and leg irons from approximately 1200 hours until her arrival at Spring Hill Institution at midnight (12 hours). While at Nova [she] was chained from her leg shackles to the bed frame from approximately 1340 hours until her removal from the cell at 2209 hours (approximately eight and one-half hours later) . . . No-one questioned the need for restraint equipment or the justification for shackling the inmate to the bed. Other concerns were generated pertaining to the excessive delay in any decontamination efforts and attempts to provide her with basic amenities including clothing, mattress and blankets. While no malice or harmful intentions were evident on the part of the staff, the manner in which [the prisoner] was managed and handled appeared inhumane . . . While no malice or intent to treat [the prisoner] in an inhumane fashion was detected during this investigation, the treatment in and of itself was degrading and unjustified. The Board is of the opinion that staff over-reacted to the danger that [the prisoner] presented and applied an unreasonable and unjustified level of force vis--vis restraint equipment. (Disciplinary Board of Investigation, Nova Institution, 1996-09-19)

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