Nfld. & Labrador

'We told you so': Long-time issues need big shift at HMP, says NAPE

Replacing the crumbling structure is essential, says Jerry Earle, but not the only thing that needs to be done.

Replace the crumbling prison, but don't delay tackling other pressing issues

A concrete building inside the walls of Her Majesty's Penitentiary in St. John's. While parts of the prison date back to 1859, the age of this structure is unknown. (Ariana Kelland/CBC)

Problems at Her Majesty's Penitentiary are nothing new, and a report into the state of Newfoundland and Labrador's largest — and oldest — jail highlights issues that staff have been flagging for a long time.

"What I'm hearing from our members is, 'We told you so,'" says Jerry Earle, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees.

"The talk should be over, it's time to act on this."

A report into the deaths of two men and two women inside the province's prison system had a list of recommendations, including a replacement for HMP, new mental health units and increased cell checks, to name a few.

I don't think there's a magic bullet for any of this.- Health Minister John Haggie

Earle said that it's going to be a while before HMP, parts of which date back to the Victorian era, gets replaced, but that doesn't mean some things can't be addressed immediately.

"Having appropriate mental health advocates in the workplace — you've got to remember, these are correctional officers, they're only provided basic training — but you need to have the mental health professionals there," Earle said.

"And of course, the obvious one … the replacement of HMP. That has to be done, that's a must. And I realize that it's not a politically popular thing to do, but it is a necessary thing to do."

Earle said he's been the president of NAPE for four years and for all that time, the state of things at HMP has been a hot topic of discussion.

'It's unbelievable'

He took a walk-through of HMP once and said the general public has no idea just how bad it is.

"It's crumbling infrastructure, it's almost impossible to describe ... We have human beings that are incarcerated, we have human beings that are working there," he said, adding the only areas the public see is through the media, and that doesn't show the full picture.

"It's unbelievable."

Union leader Jerry Earle says corrections officers at HMP should be getting more support and training. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

Earle said that he has been in talks with Justice and Public Safety Minister Andrew Parsons and the minister acknowledges the problem and is openly working with the union to address issues.

But he said in the meantime, union members are struggling.

"It has an impact on them daily. Number one, they're not able to, in their opinion, provide services they need to the inmates. It has an adverse affect on their health, so you can imagine the inmates," Earle said.

"It is having a direct impact on people that work there, and unfortunately past administrations had the opportunity when we were much better off to act and didn't."

Her Majesty's Penitentiary, as seen in the early 1900s. Sgt. Warder Daniel Crotty, right, in the 1920s. (Facebook/Her Majesty's Penitentiary Museum/Archives)

Earlier this week, former corrections superintendent Marvin McNutt said the approach to security at HMP needs a second look, saying that he recommended back in 2008 that HMP enact a dynamic security model.

That would see the removal of physical barriers in some areas, so corrections staff could interact more directly with inmates who are not considered high risk.

But Earle said given the set-up of HMP the way it is now, that's not likely to work.

"In my personal opinion, [it's] absolutely impossible," he said.

No magic cure-all

That's a sentiment Health Minister John Haggie can appreciate.

"That was built before Confederation, HMP, at a time when the emphasis really was much more on segregation, punishment and isolation …" Haggie said.

"The emphasis on rehabilitation really only came a lot later in the prison system."

Haggie, in his role as health minister, has been involved in discussions about how to tend to inmates who have mental health and addictions issues, as well as the new expanded forensic unit proposed for the replacement of the Waterford Hospital.

Health Minister John Haggie says there's no one thing that can address all of the problems. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

"I don't think there's a magic bullet for any of this," Haggie said, adding that the gold standard for mental health care shouldn't rely on where people end up.

"It should not matter, from a health point of view, whether we treat you in HMP or we treat you in the new adult mental health facility, if that's appropriate, or if you are eligible for community treatment.

"The challenge is moving all those various levers so they line up, and we're well on the way to start that process."

Haggie agrees with Earle that a good first step would be talking to front-line workers and looking at a dynamic staffing model.

"I think part of it relates to a philosophy approach. Is prison as much about punitive consequences, or is there a rehabilitation piece to it? That's outside my realm of expertise. That's really justice and public safety and [the] court approach," he said.

"Whether court wants to change its approach and mandate a different way of detaining people who have mental health issues is an issue for the court, not for the health system, really."

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from the St. John's Morning Show

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