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Dispatches From Burnside, Episode Six: Shanks and Skeletons

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
"After being here a while, one becomes hyper-aware of the various mechanical sounds indicating a particular door is opening. This is even the case during sleep. You can be sound asleep, enjoying the fruits of fantasy – a pleasant dream – when a familiar 'whirr, click' indicates your door just popped open. The mind and body spring into action, powered by fight or flight hormones. In three seconds flat your shoes are on, shank in hand, and ready for war."
"After being here a while, one becomes hyper-aware of the various mechanical sounds indicating a particular door is opening. This is even the case during sleep. You can be sound asleep, enjoying the fruits of fantasy – a pleasant dream – when a familiar 'whirr, click' indicates your door just popped open. The mind and body spring into action, powered by fight or flight hormones. In three seconds flat your shoes are on, shank in hand, and ready for war."

Trigger Warning: The following article deals candidly with life in Burnside jail. There are details of violence included.

By Phoenix

BURNSIDE CORRECTIONAL FACILITY, NOVA SCOTIA - The old adage, 'What happens at Burnside stays in Burnside', might sound cool and mysterious, but the psychological reality is that an inmate's personality is irreversibly changed. And the world eventually has to deal with that.

After being here a while, one becomes hyper-aware of the various mechanical sounds indicating a particular door is opening. This is even the case during sleep. You can be sound asleep, enjoying the fruits of fantasy – a pleasant dream – when a familiar 'whirr, click' indicates your door just popped open. The mind and body spring into action, powered by fight or flight hormones. In three seconds flat your shoes are on, shank in hand, and ready for war.

Ninety seven percent of the time this is an unnecessary precaution. But on the few occasions where somebody has planned to jump you, three seconds is about all you've got. Four or five guys will be in your cell, and they aren't there for tea and crumpets.

The public only hears about the fatalities or near fatalities. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. The violence can be unpredictable and extreme.

One inmate had a fight with his girlfriend on the phone. He flew into a rage and took out his anger on another inmate, ostensibly because he was snoring. His rude awakening was in the hospital with a broken eye socket.

A lot of inmates sleep with shank in hand. Don't ever admit it to the guards though. One offender made this mistake and they put him into administrative segregation indefinitely.

The dangers aren't just from other inmates. The guards pose a very real threat too. If the wrong person pisses them off, they will come in and just thrash him around a bit and break any of his personal belongings.

Even if the guards aren't there to bash your head in, you have to be on your guard for searches, because they will take your means of self-defence and endanger your life indirectly. In these cases, ten guards will rush into the range with gloves on. The first person to see them will yell: “Search up!” and everyone will 'hoop' their packages.

Translation: Shove their drugs and weapons into their anus.

Usually the bung hole is the only sacred place, free from searches by the guards. The law finds a way around this by authorizing a doctor to provide full body cavity searches in certain cases. The late Ashley Smith was subjected to this.

In any other place in the world that sort of torment would be sexual assault. Inmates are subjected to regular strip searches, and if you don't comply willingly you're held down and your clothes are ripped off by force.

There's a handbook which summarizes the rights inmates supposedly have under the Provincial Correctional Services Act. A lot of it isn't followed at Burnside.

For instance, every inmate is entitled to thirty minutes of exercise outside their cell and thirty minutes of fresh air each day. In the west unit of Burnside, there are two 'lockdown' ranges for thirty two single cells, and five open ranges. To provide each inmate with thirty minutes of fresh air in the one air court would require sixteen hours for the lockdown ranges and two point five hours for the open ranges. The air court is only open from 8am until 10pm, with reserved time blocks at noon for Aboriginal smudging.

Do the math: There aren't enough hours in the day to meet the legislated requirements. In fact, there is only a two hour block reserved for each lockdown range, every second day. On average, there are at least thirty people whose rights to fresh air are being violated on a daily basis.

Lockdown ranges are horrible places, because you basically don't even get to use the shower, or use the phone, or get air court. On top of this, you have to deal with fifteen anti-social sapiens running around unsupervised, outside your cage, wielding shit and piss.

The tragic irony is that if you commit a very serious offence while on the lockdown range, you will be sent to the 'hole', where you get showers, phone calls and air court daily, as well as clean clothes and towels, which are hard to come by on lockdown ranges. Some people purposefully act up so that they can be sent to the 'hole', just so they can clean up and don't have to be shit bombed on a daily basis.

Inmates aren't allowed to run around unsupervised in the 'hole'. Also there isn't a big crack in the cell door, so shit bombing isn't possible.

It is difficult to protest any of these conditions in here, because if you do anything bothersome the guards will just come and take everything out of your cell, including mattress, sheets and blankets and disclosure papers. They will take your clothes and leave you naked in a cold room, without so much as a roll of toilet paper.

This recently gave rise to a series of protests which was partially covered in the local news. The inmates in the 'hole' banded together in a rare show of solidarity, to express a collective discontent with the inhumane conditions at Burnside.

On day one, it began with every single segregation inmate blocking his camera and his window to the hallway with toilet paper. Burnside policy requires for a guard to come every three minutes to check for a live body. Blocking the window prevents this form happening.

After a few hours of this, a team of guards came down wielding a plastic shield and pepper spray. They opened each door individually and removed the toilet paper, ready to spray any non-compliant inmates with powerful pepper spray. After this, inmates still refused to settle down, and so each cell was invaded until all mattresses, blankets and anything else visible was removed.

This left the inmates with only what was contained within body cavities, which in this case mostly consisted of shit and piss. One inmate had a lighter up his bum. The inmates began urinating and defecating onto the floor and squishing it out into the hallway, under the tiny, sugar-packet sized openings under the door.

They were screaming: “You wanna treat us like animals? Then we'll act like animals!”

The one with the lighter lit all remaining flammable items in his cell, which primarily consisted of the clothes off his back. The resulting fire was so toxic that the fire department had to attend and take the guy to the hospital. His cell was not sprinkler-protected and he did not have a working call button in his cell, so he almost died. The cell he was in had the sprinkler removed, so the guards didn't have to keep mopping up sprinkler water. The door had an issue with the lock that made it difficult to open in normal circumstances; it was especially problematic in the panic situation with fire and smoke everywhere.

That particular cell was rigged up so securely, with even a metal plate across the window, with only tiny holes to see through. Keep in mind there is no window to the outside world, only to the narrow hallway. This cell was specially fabricated to house a particular relative of Ashley Smith's, to stifle his protests about her wrongful death, in the years before it had been ruled a homicide.

The next day of protest involved catching up on the lost sleep of the previous forty eight hours. The superintendent came down in her rubber boots to survey the situation personally, and it had become serious enough to hit the local media.

The following night had the protesters back at it with more fecal desperation spewing everywhere. One inmate was on mattress protocol, so when the guards opened his door to give him back his mattress, he burst out of his cell and ran down the hallway screaming: “I have a shit bomb!”, while flinging liquid poop everywhere. On his way past the shower he also pulled a fire alarm which the guards couldn't figure out how to turn off for several hours. The entire facility was serenaded with the sound of the 'seg' protests all night long.

The next day, the 'poo-poo' operations continued unabated. The guards responded by shutting down the shower facilities for all segregation inmates. Undeterred even still, an inmate plugged his toilet and flushed it until a tidal wave of sewage washed across the entire 'seg' hallway.

On the final morning, guards and nurses refused to give inmates food or meds in the 'hole'. One by one they were all marched down to cellblocks 'A' and 'B', and the protests continued.

Meanwhile, back in 'seg', a couple inmates from a different range were paid little more than a chocolate bar or a bag of chips to clean the cells after such a messy five days. The biohazard should have been taking care of by professional medical cleaners, but instead the facility saved money by having it done by people who can barely keep their apartment tidy out on the streets. 'Seg' cells have a permanent sticky film of bodily fluids and sewage as a result of this shoddy maintenance over the years.

A team of guards came down to 'A' and 'B', in riot gear, and forcibly transferred two of the inmates who were identified as ringleaders. They were flung out to two separate jails across the province, while the rest were shipped back to segregation and were stripped of their clothes, to sit naked all day.

Another chapter of civil rights activism terminated by the blue shirts.

The skeletons in Burnside's closet cry out a sordid epic of spiteful protests over the inhumane conditions, the violations of basic civil rights and the flawed infrastructure, which results in unfathomable abuses and maltreatments of people who have genuine psychological issues. Only to release them back to their drug-addled coping mechanisms.

Knowing this, is it any wonder that Halifax's anti-social cycle of behaviours is one of the worst in Canada? The crime rate is little more than the inter-social echo of the putrid cries of agony coming from Halifax's neo-medieval torture chambers, known as Burnside jail.


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