Nfld. & Labrador·Opinion

Here's why we can't afford to keep the horror show that is HMP open

There is a path to dealing with Her Majesty's Penitentiary, writes lawyer Mark Gruchy. It has simply not been chosen.

A defence lawyer's plea for real change at Quidi Vidi Lake

On the first Wednesday of August, tens of thousands of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians will gather for a summer ritual on the shores of Quidi Vidi Lake.

There will be games of chance, stuffed toys, excited children, hustle and bustle.

Politicians will walk around the lake pretending to be normal people. They will be there in force wearing their colours: red, orange and blue, checking out their rivals as they vie for power.

Across the lake, a grim sentinel will look on, looming over the people who will do their best to forget it is there.

So it has been for 159 years. The nation of Canada did not exist. But Her Majesty's did. 

Dread of what's behind those walls

Every year as a little boy, I would look across the lake and feel dread. I would imagine who it housed. I thought I knew what it was.

I had no idea.

Her Majesty's Penitentiary sits near the shores of Quidi Vidi Lake in St. John's. (Ted Dillon/CBC )

I have been visiting that place for years now. I know its stink. I have seen the faces of people I know running in terror from explosions of violence within. I have seen it turn young men better thought of as children savage. I have heard the sound of human mental collapse. I have known men it has killed.

I have spoken with correctional officers who limp away from a career they chose because they wanted to help people, but find themselves struck with PTSD like a soldier in a war.

I have known people who desperately needed to be in a mental health facility in the grips of psychosis, their medications taken from them or "adjusted"  for some obscure, marginal reason. I have seen them placed in solitary confinement where the light shines on you 24 hours a day for some reason literally no one can consistently explain.

Not because of anything they did but because of who they are. Because the prison is too ancient and useless to properly house them.

It simply has nowhere else to put them.

Let's talk about the inmates

Who are those within?

They are people who come from great trauma. People who have been beaten and sexually abused.

It starts with you. If you go to the Regatta this year, look across the lake.

People who have literally watched their parents violently die as small children. People who were trained to steal as children. People who cannot read.

People with brain damage. People who are horribly drug addicted to painkillers because their lives have been nothing but pain, victims of a mass health crisis the CDC now says has surpassed the height of the AIDS/HIV crisis in severity.

Quidi Vidi Lake is home to both a proud rowing tradition — exemplified by Morgan MacDonald's sculpture — and the nearby Her Majesty's Penitentiary. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

Over the last number of years assaults have soared. Riots have occurred. Mass attacks have occurred. People have killed themselves.

Commentators have called it a tinderbox.

Not just a problem at HMP

The culture of the place transcends its walls as women in Clarenville are also dying in the grips of apparent mental health crisis. Skye Martin and Samantha Piercey are dead. They're gone.

Now we have Chris Sutton, desperately calling out for help before he dies, his articulate words deafeningly screaming out the human potential disappearing into the void of Her Majesty's. 

All against a backdrop of secrecy, questions about record keeping and our Human Rights Commission expressing fear they simply do not have access to the information they need while expressing fear for those within in the same breath. We are at the stage where we can't even ascertain the full magnitude of what is occurring.

This is happening here. Not in some lost land across the sea.


In our community.

A trouble question: why does HMP still exist?

Everyone agrees HMP must be closed. The lawyers know it. The COs know it. The probation officers know it. The inmates know it. The not for profits know it. The unions know it. The advocates know it.

Multiple governments for decades have known it.

Because Newfoundland and Labrador does not have a federal prison, HMP has taken on the role of housing criminals not sent away to mainland institutions. (CBC)

Now, even judges condemn it in their decisions calling it "completely inadequate" in dealing with people with mental illness. No one wants it to continue to exist.

So why does it?

The honest answer is chilling. We are all human beings, inside and outside HMP. Humans have their ways. They form gangs. They chant slogans. They wear their colours. They seek power. They advance their own self-interest.

You don't have to go to HMP to see this. Take a seat in the gallery at the House of Assembly. Look at the grown men and women heckle each other. Look at them bully each other. Look at them accuse each other. Men and women sometimes better thought of as children, just like many of the people in HMP. They are exactly the same, just as we all are.

Those people have the power. Only they can cut out the black heart of Her Majesty's, the special handling and segregation units. Only they can directly confront that spiritual black hole where people try to sleep under glaring, 24-hour light wearing bizarre "sunglasses" they had to fight the system to get as in some twisted Kafkaesque nightmare.

Only they can confront that spiritual black hole where the wails of the collapsing severely mentally ill drive the sane insane.

We were told it was impossible

But they don't. Because it is easier to spread money around places that get them the votes of some district.

They tell themselves it is necessary. They close their eyes and put their hands over their ears like children and try desperately to convince themselves the suffering is not real. But it is and they know it. I truly pity those among them with hearts who have been swept along with the machine, those who lack power among the powerful.

Parts of HMP date back to the 19th century. (CBC)

In January 2017, our justice minister was quoted in the Canadian Press as saying he raised replacing HMP with his federal counterpart Ralph Goodale.

Earlier this month, federal cabinet minister Seamus O'Regan was quoted by the CBC saying the province had not raised the issue with the federal government but the federal government would be willing to talk to them about it.

He said the federal government was following provincially stated priorities. He said this as he proclaimed more federal money than ever was entering our province as he awkwardly proclaimed the overriding greatness of a new wharf.

It therefore appears a choice has been made to allow the horror show of HMP to continue. We were told it was impossible. The reality is simply that it is not considered priority. It appears the little gangs of the prison are again at the mercy of the big gang of The House. There is money for Nalcor. Money for wastewater. Money for wharves.

A national embarrassment

Money is not the issue. The issue is choice. The issue is cynical political self interest masquerading as objective economics. There is a path, it has simply not been chosen. 

This national embarrassment is coming to an end. The only choices to be made by our elected leaders is what side of history they want to be on and how severe they want this crisis to become.

Justice Minister Andrew Parsons says there are no plans in place to upgrade or replace the penitentiary. (CBC)

It starts with you. If you go to the Regatta this year, look across the lake.


Know what you are looking at. Know functionally illiterate people who have done nothing more than commit petty property crimes in response to a life of misery are in there living in terror.

Know there are people who scarcely know what planet they are on and belong in a hospital who are being effectively tortured by segregation. 

Know that you are looking at a spiritual void. Realize that it is wrong. Realize it doesn't have to be this way.

Remember you live in a civilized nation.

Remember whose fault it is it stays that way. Look around. They'll be there. Look for the groups wearing the same colour who are smiling a lot.

Here's what we don't need

Tell them you know what's going on.  Ask them why they let it continue. Listen carefully to their answer. Ask yourself if they make any sense. Ask yourself if they have said anything at all.

Tell them we don't need another inquiry.

Tell them we need HMP closed. Tell them we need the dying to stop in Clarenville. Tell them we need the dying to stop at HMP.

Her Majesty's Penitentiary was intended to be a jail for convicts serving time for petty crimes. Over time, much of its population are convicted of serious crimes. (CBC)

Tell them the men and women in corrections in this province need proper mental health care immediately. Tell them the men and women who work there deserve to work in a place that doesn't wound their soul. Tell them we need immediate independent oversight of all usage of segregation. Tell them our entire corrections system is broken and must be fixed.

Tell them they have failed.

Nothing will change in our system until we apply enough political pressure to begin to move the mountain. The pressure has been building for decades. We are almost there. There are men and women on the ground who can build a fit system, but they can't move the mountain alone.

They need our help. Our leaders have failed.

It's up to us now.

Parts of HMP have been cited as in desperate need of repair. (Ariana Kelland/CBC)

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador 


Mark Gruchy


Mark Gruchy is a criminal defence attorney and mental health advocate. He lives in Flatrock.