The contract for the design and location of a new prison to replace the antiquated Her Majesty's Penitentiary will be awarded this week, Justice Minister Darin King said Monday.

King made the announcement during a scrum with reporters to discuss health and safety issues raised by past and present guards and inmates at the current facility, not the least of which was a brawl in the pen's chapel on Feb. 9.

Numerous sources inside and outside the prison have confirmed that staff knew the targeted attack against one inmate was about to go down, yet nothing extraordinary was done to prevent it.

Shanks made from prison infrastructure and furniture were used in the fight, but no one was seriously hurt.

King said he has nothing but praise for prison staff after viewing video of the incident.

"I have to say that I'm not sure how they contained the situation, to be frank with you. It speaks to their professionalism and their competency."

Internal review

Asked why extra guards weren't called in before the brawl occurred, the province's superintendent of prisons, Graham Rogerson, said that will be part of an internal review.

"But we believe the response was very good and very fast," he said, adding the review will look at how to deal with a similar situation in the future "from start to finish."

King said the review won't be made public since it's operational in nature, and will undoubtedly include sensitive and private information regarding staff and inmates.

Nor would either man say how long the process would take.

King noted he called in three senior representatives of the correction staff at the prison earlier Monday to discuss their concerns.

That meeting occurred shortly before staff held a demonstration outside the penitentiary to draw attention to their workplace plight.


Correctional officer Paul Taylor says Her Majesty's Penitentiary has become a much more dangerous place since he started working there 22 years ago. ((CBC))

Paul Taylor, a guard with 22 years' experience at the pen, said the prison is a more dangerous place today.

"From the day I started to now, it's a different environment," said Taylor, huddled with colleagues outside the facility that overlooks Quidi Vidi Lake in St. John's.

"Some days you don't know if you're coming out after a situation like last Sunday. It's a different climate of inmate altogether. They're more gang-affiliated. There's gangs everywhere inside the prison now, and shanks are picked up on a daily basis ... where back 20 years ago you didn't see a shank. Maybe one a year or every six months," he said.

Taylor said the unpredictability of inmates is also higher.

"We have more lifers or murderers down there now than we ever had in corrections. We're dealing with them every day ... in our offices, with them one on one. But that's our job," he said.

Taylor said more staff is one solution, but added there are places in the prison where that wouldn't make a difference.

"I just wish government would open its eyes before there are many more of those Sundays, and someone is eventually killed," he said.

King insists the government is on it.

"If there's a way that we can ... make life easier for them, we'll certainly do that," he said. "But I want to assure people that our focus here is on the safety of the officers and the safety of the inmates. We're fully aware of the seriousness of the situation, and we're certainly going to do whatever we can over the next coming days and weeks to support them."

And that, said the minister, starts with awarding the tender for the design and location of the new prison by the end of this week.

"Perhaps, in a way, that will demonstrate to people that we're very serious about this. People still tend to question whether we're moving forward."

The provincial government announced in last year's budget that it would build a new prison with or without federal help, although no timeline has been announced for construction.