Nfld. & Labrador

'We need somebody to help us': Hunger strike at HMP for Prisoners' Justice Day

Peter Campbell says inmates need real help, not 'volunteers and people just handing out pamphlets.'

'This is a revolving door for people with mental health and drug problems,' says one inmate

HMP inmate Peter Campbell says most of the people in the jail belong in mental health or addictions care.

By Saturday afternoon, Peter Campbell, an inmate at Her Majesty's Penitentiary in St. John's, said his stomach was growling.

"Definitely hungry," he said. "But it's for a good cause."

He and his fellow inmates were refusing food to take part in a hunger strike in honour of International Prisoners' Justice Day.

Their protest joined actions across the globe to recognize the day, which began as an act of solidarity when Eddie Nalon took his own life while in solitary confinement at Ontario's Millhaven Maximum Security Prison in 1974.

Talking to CBC News on an HMP payphone, Campbell said the day means a lot to him and his fellow inmates because there are desperate needs inside the crumbling, Victorian-era facility that aren't being met.

"This is a revolving door for people with mental health and drug problems," he said.

"Eighty per cent of the jail is mental health and drug problems. They shouldn't be here."

Campbell said the system isn't set up to help the inmates recover or get their lives on track.

"We need real programs here, not volunteers and people just handing out pamphlets," he said. "We need a voice, we need somebody to help us."

From left, Samantha Piercey, Chris Sutton, Doug Neary and Skye Martin all died while incarcerated at provincial correctional institutions between August 2017 and July 2018. (Facebook)

His pleas join a ringing chorus of others, from officials to inmates, who say the system is failing.

A report released early this year following the deaths of four inmates — two at HMP and two at the Clarenville Correctional Centre for Women — said the province's correctional facilities are at a "breaking point," crushed by systemic issues, overcrowding and a dire need to address addictions and mental health issues.

A month before the provincial election, Liberal Justice Minister Andrew Parsons pledged $200 million to replace HMP with a new public-private partnership facility in the White Hills area, which could house twice as many inmates. 

The provincial government says construction will start in 2022.

More time outside, better food

Compounding the lack of supports is the lack of recreation time outside, Campbell said.

Inmates typically get outdoors only once a week, and that's not nearly enough, he said.

Other inmates have told CBC News in the past that opportunities to go outside are scarce.

He also said food quality is poor, and special dietary needs, like allergies or religious restrictions, aren't accommodated. The kitchen also recently stopped serving juice, which inmates preferred over the tap water, he said.

Her Majesty's Penitentiary is Newfoundland and Labrador's largest jail. The crumbling, Victorian-era structure sits on the banks of Quidi Vidi Lake. (CBC)

Now inmates wanting to avoid the tap water have to buy drinks from the canteen, he said, and not everybody has the money to do that.

A spokesperson from the Department of Justice said officials were aware the hunger strike was planned in solidarity with International Prisoners' Justice Day. 

In an emailed statement, the spokesperson said the menu at HMP was recently changed in accordance with the new Canada Food Guide, and they have had some complaints from inmates. 

The department has asked the jail's manager of institutional programming to take a look at how other facilities have adapted their menus to the new guide.

"As well, we are seeking information locally from other organizations (i.e. schools and hospitals) to determine how they adjusted their menu's to the new Canada Food Guide," the statement read.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Zach Goudie