Nfld. & Labrador·Video

Inside Her Majesty's Penitentiary: Justice minister given glimpse into world of corrections

Newfoundland and Labrador's justice minister was at the province's largest prison Wednesday morning, joining correctional officers as they perform their morning duties.

Andrew Parsons visits HMP, takes on role of corrections officer for Corrections Week

Justice Minister gets tour of Her Majesty's Penitentiary

6 years ago
Duration 2:30
Andrew Parsons visits HMP, takes on role of corrections officer for Corrections Week

At a desk near the prison kitchen, two correctional officers get the chance to show Newfoundland and Labrador's justice minister something he doesn't get to see in his day-to-day job at Confederation Building.

"On a daily basis there's definitely a smell of weed or crack or God knows what," one officer tells Andrew Parsons, who was wearing an official corrections safety vest.

Parsons, with members of media in tow, joined correctional officers at Her Majesty's Penitentiary (HMP) Wednesday morning.

The organized media event offered a rare glimpse inside HMP and insight into the work of people employed there.

"It was really important for me to see the day-to-day of what they do and I think it's important for the public to see it," Parsons said.

"They are unsung heroes in many ways."

Minister of Justice and Public Safety Andrew Parsons speaks to two correctional officers at Her Majesty's Penitentiary on Wednesday. Parsons joined officers as they performed their morning duties at the facility. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

Parsons was led to the east wing bottom of the prison — where men first entering the facility are taken — unlocking cell doors and checking on inmates.

We're not going to do anything that exploits their privacy.- Justice Minister Andrew Parsons

The bars on the doors were painted blue. A pay phone hung on the wall and an empty bag of chips was left in one of the unoccupied cells that media were allowed to view. The east wing bottom was built in 1945.

Correctional officers invited the minister to visit the penitentiary to see what they do. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

"Technology here is a little outdated as you may have seen," one officer tells Parsons as he fiddles with the lock and bars on a cell door.

HMP is infamous for its age and condition. With parts dating back to the mid-1800s, there have been numerous calls for an upgraded facility to house inmates with 21st century problems.

Justice Minister Andrew Parsons opens up cells during the morning routine at HMP on Wednesday. (Ariana Kelland/CBC)

In the kitchen, eight inmates and a civilian cook serve up trays of breakfast — sausage, french toast and milk — all health guide-approved, reporters are told. 

A 60-year-old inmate tells reporters he likes his kitchen job — it takes him away from the dangers of prison life, where assaults and drugs are par for the course.

He explains this is his first time in jail, and that working long hours in the kitchen makes the time go faster.

Wearing white t-shirts and orange institutional pants, some inmates turn their faces away from the cameras, while others appear unfazed, as they grab trays of food. 

An inmate who is one of eight people who work in the HMP kitchen shows what breakfast looks like at the province's largest prison. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)
The kitchen is generally quieter than other parts of the prison, where drugs and fights are common. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

Moving along, Parsons joined officers as they prepared to transfer an inmate from HMP to the lockup at the Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court.

The inmate will be held in the lockup until his court appearance, where he's expected to be sentenced.

"We had a chat beforehand to make sure he was comfortable with this," Parsons later told reporters.

We're full. We're at capacity right now.-Assistant Superintendent Diana Gibbons

"We're not going to do anything that exploits their privacy and in fact in many times when I meet with inmates they want the outside to see the conditions that they face as well."

Prison officials told reporters they gave inmates the opportunity to speak to media if they wanted but none obliged. 

Inmates as 'props'

NDP justice critic Gerry Rogers agreed it's important to show the work of correctional officers and the condition of the facility.

But Rogers was wary of the use of inmates during the visit.

NDP MHA Gerry Rogers, justice critic, says she hopes meaningful change comes from the justice minister's visit to Her Majesty's Penitentiary. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

"We can't use people who are going through such a hard time as props," Rogers told CBC News later Wednesday.

"The drug rehabilitation needs, the education needs, if that is not addressed then this is simply a hollow PR exercise. We can't afford that."

Rogers said the correctional facilities are understaffed and there is a need for more rehabilitation, recreation and education. 

At capacity

On this particular day, there were 183 inmates at the facility — maximum capacity — and 24 other inmates In the lockup.

"We're full. We're at capacity right now," said Assistant Superintendent Diana Gibbons.

Asked what happens if more people are sent to HMP, Gibbons said there are other provincial correctional facilities and transfers to federal institutions.

"The island is pretty well full right now ... we're managing."

Correctional officer Nagle opens up a cell door in the St. John's lockup, where females are kept. Each cell has two beds. (Sherry Vivian/CBC )

Despite recognition of the poor conditions and the need for a new prison, Parsons didn't promise any additional money, citing financial challenges.

Past provincial governments have called on the federal government to contribute to a new facility, given many inmates serve federal sentences at HMP.

"We need to find a way to make this happen," Parsons said, adding provincial money was earmarked in the budget to continue planning for a new prison. 

As media get ready to leave, one officer tells reporters he can't remember the last time media entered HMP, and is hopeful some positive news will come from Parsons's visit. 

The visit is part of Corrections Week, which runs until Saturday. Correctional officers reached out to the minister last month and invited him to visit. 


Ariana Kelland

Investigative reporter

Ariana Kelland is a reporter with the CBC Newfoundland and Labrador bureau in St. John's. She is working as a member of CBC's Atlantic Investigative Unit. Email: