02/01/2015 10:00 EST | Updated 04/03/2015 05:59 EDT

Assaults nearly double at Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility, records say

HALIFAX - The number of assaults at Nova Scotia's largest jail nearly doubled in the first six months of last year compared to the same period in 2013 as inmates injured guards and fought each other after small frustrations turned into flashpoints of escalating violence.

Incident reports released to The Canadian Press through freedom of information legislation detail one case where feces was thrown, others where guards were spat on and brawls that included the use of handmade weapons at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Halifax.

There were 70 assaults between offenders, 32 assaults on staff and three fights in the first six months of 2014.

In 2013 during the same period, there were 35 offender assaults, six assaults on staff and 16 fights documented.

The reports show how moments of frustration quickly spiralled last year.

Five officers were assaulted in an outbreak of violence that began when an offender threw a juice jug in a prison day room because he was frustrated by the telephones, says a report dated Feb. 5.

Injuries requiring hospitalization are noted throughout the reports, such as an Oct. 26, 2013, assault where an inmate suffers "massive face wounds" in a fight. In another case on Feb. 9, 2014, a female correctional officer was repeatedly punched by an inmate.

The records also document a continuing effort to halt the flow of smuggled drugs. Between Jan. 1, 2013, and July 1 this year, 43 Dilaudid pills, bags of marijuana and painkillers, such as hydromorphine and Percocets, were seized.

The April 7 death of 23-year-old Clayton Cromwell is also contained in the reports, but they don't explain what occurred beyond the fact that his body was found in his cell. A spokesman for the province's Justice Department said an internal investigation has been provided to police, who are still investigating.

Ron Joiner, a correctional officer instructor at the Nova Scotia Community College, said the records reflect tensions shared by Canadian provincial prisons that hold people awaiting trial or for short sentences.

"Rehabilitation is I think a secondary consideration ... because they are basically warehouses for offenders," he said, noting that between 65 and 70 per cent of prisoners at the Halifax jail are on remand.

"You have very few offenders who are serving time for much more than 12 months so the level of rehabilitative programming is fairly low."

Sean Kelly, the province's director of correctional services, said he expects violence to decrease with the completion of a new prison expected to open this winter in northern Nova Scotia, adding it could lead to the transfer of up to about 100 inmates.

When violent incidents break out, he said staff are normally nearby and respond within seconds.

"You never totally eliminate acts of violence in a correctional facility," he said.

The prison was originally built in the mid-1990s to house 272 prisoners, but Kelly said demand for space has led to double bunking in the units for men. Justice Department records say there were up to 389 people in the prison last winter.

On March 25, 2014, tensions reached the point where correctional officers declined to conduct a search after a brawl, citing concerns over a lack of Taser operators. After talks between the union and management, a search was eventually carried out but nothing was found.

Paulette MacKinnon, the jail's superintendent, said work refusals are rare.

"Normally we're very good at handling those situations," she said. "Very seldom do we have any kind of situation where staff hesitates in taking on their role in any given incident."

She said the prison, with 126 full-time and about 60 part-time staff, has a sufficient number of officers.

As for the increase in the number of assaults, MacKinnon said that may be because staff have been encouraged to report more incidents.

But prisoner rights advocates say overcrowded conditions have resulted in restrictions on fresh air, programming, phone calls and visits, thereby contributing to tension inside the jail.

"At some point if you continue to allow frustration to build up it's going to boil over," said John Peach, director of the John Howard Society in Nova Scotia.

Inmates describe their frustrations in 684 prisoner complaint records also received under freedom of information for 2013 and the first half of this year.

Complaint forms repeatedly describe being confined to cells with little access to showers or programs due to disturbances prisoners may have had nothing to do with. Restrictions on weekend visits upset other prisoners, including one who says it means giving up a day's wages for relatives struggling to make ends meet.

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