N.L. is building a new jail. But without changes, advocates

A prison rights advocacy group is calling for an overhaul to the penal system to go along with the new jail that will replace Her Majesty’s Penitentiary, arguing that the crumbling 150-year-old building isn’t the only thing infringing on inmate rights.

CBC News reported Wednesday that the provincial Supreme Court slashed six months off one inmate’s sentence last week due to “harsh conditions” experienced at the St. John’s prison, calling the man’s experience “intolerable and unacceptable.”

The inmate said he’d been confined without access to therapy or programming and was bullied by other inmates and guards because of his incontinence.

His lawyer listed several other instances at HMP in which inmates suffered undue harm and were granted credit for time served, called a “Duncan credit.”

Cindy Murphy, executive director of the John Howard Society, says those inmates who’ve gotten the credit aren’t the only ones experiencing distress inside the pen’s walls.

Most were confined to their units during COVID-19 lockdowns.

“All that extra isolation was particularly troubling for many who were incarcerated,” Murphy said.

“The conditions of confinement in that old building are horrendous, from the lack of cleanliness to rodents. All those things are well known problems, well documented.”

HMP construction to start next spring

The Newfoundland and Labrador government promised in 2019 to construct a new prison, replacing the Victorian-era HMP.

But a new prison won’t matter much, Murphy said, if the current culture at HMP is simply imported into the next building.

“If we just build a new prison and nothing changes, we only change geography,” she said.

“We’re still taking all the problems that currently exist in a facility and moving them to somewhere else. So we’ve got to get this right.”

In a statement Thursday, the Department of Justice told CBC News that it expects to start building the new prison in spring of 2023, finishing it three years later, in 2026. In the meantime, the department said it acknowledges infrastructure issues and grants inmates recreational time on a rotating basis.

Cindy Murphy is executive director with the John Howard Society in St. John’s. (Submitted by Cindy Murphy)

Murphy said the John Howard Society will meet with the department next week and urge them to make wide-ranging changes when the new building opens.

Lack of staff, she argues, has plagued the prison in recent years — and that’s not something a different building will fix.

“Those staffing shortages are causing all kinds of problems. We know inmates are not getting access to outside … for the lack of staff to supervise them. We know some programs are being curtailed because there’s no correctional officer present to supervise,” Murphy said.

“It’s having a profound impact on the inmates’ ability to move within the institution.”

But before the province breaks ground on the prison, she said, she’s heartened by the courts’ recognition that conditions at HMP are infringing on inmates’ rights.

“It’s certainly signaling that it’s not OK and it should never be OK,” she said.

“Hopefully the message here is that we need to do better. We know better, so we should be doing better.”

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