Nfld. & Labrador

Life inside HMP detailed in new MUN exhibit

Time on Their Hands looks at what inmates made while inside Her Majesty's Penitentiary.

'We found these items almost every day,' says retired HMP captain

David Harvey retired as a captain at Her Majesty's Penitentiary after 30 years of service. (Ariana Kelland/CBC)

When an inmate sat in his cell at Her Majesty's Penitentiary and began whittling the hard plastic handle of his Colgate toothbrush into a sharp, homemade weapon, it's unlikely he ever thought it'd be worthy of display.

But a new exhibit at Memorial University has put a spotlight on that and other items of intrigue that were confiscated or discovered within the walls of Her Majesty's Penitentiary.

Time on their Hands was unveiled at Queen's College on Friday at a ceremony combining academics and corrections staff. 

The new exhibit is the brainchild of David Harvey, who retired as a correctional officer in July 2014, after 30 years on the job. But his time on jail property certainly didn't end there. 

He has spent the last 10 years dedicated to preserving the history of the Dickensian-era prison, filled with stories of public hangings, famous inmates and failed — and successful — jail breaks.

The project started when Harvey noticed stacks of ledgers and old cardboard boxes about two decades ago in the damp basement of the jail's gymnasium. 

Spending hours in the archives and using the resources he had, Harvey created a private museum in the basement of HMP's administration building. It contained artifacts illustrating the province's sordid history of crime and punishment.

Historical artifacts from Her Majesty's Penitentiary are on display in Queen's College as part of an exhibit titled Time on Their Hands. (Bryn Tapper )

The next challenge was convincing anyone who would listen that the items were in desperate need of preserving. The oldest document dates back to 1838, when the province's prison was just east of the Supreme Court on Duckworth Street in St. John's. HMP was constructed in 1859.

"I look 100 years down the road, that's my thing," Harvey said Friday.

"I'm even collecting more things now as we speak, and I'm hoping that 100 years down the road there's going to be someone like me that's going to take care of all this and have it displayed."

Decade of work on display

His project caught the attention of Madeleine Mant, in MUN's archeology department, who is credited with helping the material make its way to the university. 

"To be able to come up to the university and see this … professionally displayed, which makes a real difference for me, it's a real bonus after all these years," Harvey said.

The display cases show everything from old caps worn by inmates in the 1920s to packages of tobacco that were issued as late as the 1980s to an old mailbag that was sewed by inmates in the 1970s for Canada Post. 

In addition to learning about the lived experiences of inmates, Harvey said, the exhibit gives the public an opportunity to fully appreciate the work of correctional officers.

During the 1970s, inmates repaired and sewed mailbags, like the one pictured here, for Canada Post. (Ariana Kelland/CBC)

"It can be dangerous. These are things that we had to put up with every day. We found these items almost every day. It's to let people know that prison is a hard place to work," he said.

After years of researching each item, the novelty wears off, Harvey said — until someone asks him a question, including former convicts. 

"I've had a couple of inmates, ex-cons, approach me, and wanted to come up and have a look at it. I said, 'Sure, it's open to the public.' You may remember some of the stuff up here, who knows?" Harvey laughed.

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About the Author

Ariana Kelland is a reporter with the CBC Newfoundland and Labrador bureau in St. John's.


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