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Media tour of Springhill Institution showcases changes

The vertical bars of old are replaced today by horizontal bars. Outside, inmates can watch the changing of the seasons.
The vertical bars of old are replaced today by horizontal bars. Outside, inmates can watch the changing of the seasons.

After 50 years the only thing that hasn’t changed at Springhill Institution is time.

The medium security prison celebrated its fifth decade of operation at the start of October and on Oct. 5th opened a few doors to media to showcase some of the features inside Canada’s largest fenced-in facility.

There were ground-rules from the very start: no pictures of inmates to protect the privacy of prisoners and respect the feelings of victims; no pictures of staff unless they signed a consent form; no pictures of the fencing keeping prisoners inside the prison or from accessing certain areas of the prison.

Nothing is left to chance inside the prison, including the potential for workshop tools to become misplaced when they are not being used.

Anything that could be used to compromise security, really, was off limits yet there was still much to see and learn.

The new cells inside Springhill Institution are still not the five-star accommodations some members of the public think they are, but they are not as extreme or harsh as their predecessors either.

Services inside the prison include education, soft job skills, health care, religious counseling and life-skills, but at the end of the day programming is only beneficial when an inmate comes to the decision they want to change their lives.

First Nations and Indigenous offenders can be housed together when they advance to release-readiness programming, which allows them to connect with their culture with the guidance of an elder.

“No one has ever said they want to be here,” acting warden Sandy Ward said.

Media were given a demonstration by drug detection K9 team Red and Mike Moss, one of four inside Springhill Institution and 11 in the province.

Springhill Institution has the capacity to house more than 600 inmates, but right now tends to less than 400. Nonetheless, there is a steady flow of inmates arriving and others leaving as the justice system does it work. In her own professional career, Ward says she’s seen changes to everything it means being inside a prison from the type of building used to the type of people hired and the programming. The 50th anniversary of the prison, Ward says, seemed like the right time to lift the veil on some of those changes.

“We wanted to show the public what we do here, that we’re not about shutting doors,” Ward said.

Inmates can choose to learn new skills inside the prison to help them when they are released. The prison’s CORCAN workshop finds steady work from the Canadian Forces refurbishing vehicles and equipment as well as building desks and furniture.

Built in 1967, Springhill Institution became a major employer to the community after coal mining concluded almost a decade earlier following a major mining disaster. 

When inmates progress to release-readiness programming they are housed with other inmates in a dorm room-like environment where they can mingle and interact with each other. Outside the unit, however, there’s no denying it is still a prison and units can be locked down remotely.

In the past decade the federal government invested $40 million in upgrades, making it the largest prison expansion since the 1930s.

Almost all of the medium-security units inside Springhill Institution have been replaced over the last decade. Capable of housing 600 inmates, the current inmate population is under 400.

Besides housing medium-risk offenders the institution receives all incoming incarcerations for the Atlantic region. It’s here where prisoner profiles are determined before transferring them Springhill’s general population if they match the profile, Atlantic Institution in Renous, N.B. if they are deemed a maximum security risk, or the multi-level Dorchester Penitentiary, which shares its grounds with the minimum security Westmorland Institution and the 50-bed psychiatric unit Shebody Healing Centre. Female inmates are housed in Truro, at the Nova Institution for Women.


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