Nfld. & Labrador

Assaults soar in Newfoundland's Dickens-era jail: 'It's a tinderbox'

Assaults at the crumbling jail more than doubled to 41 in 2016 from 19 the year before, and critics say the appalling structure should be bulldozed.

Her Majesty's Penitentiary in St. John's has been operating since the 19th century

NAPE president Jerry Earle (left), Justice Minister Andrew Parsons and criminal defence lawyer Bob Buckingham (right) each say they're concerned about HMP. (CBC)

It opened in 1859, the year Charles Dickens' new novel A Tale of Two Cities transfixed readers with Dr. Manette's tormented imprisonment at the Bastille.

Built from stone, Her Majesty's Penitentiary in St. John's was meant to be "stark, severe, forbidding."

In its old basement dungeon, shackles were once used to keep inmates in solitary confinement. HMP was the site of at least five hangings.

"It's not a correctional facility. It's a penal institution," said Bob Buckingham, a criminal defence lawyer who often represents clients held at HMP.

There have been updates and add-ons to the original stone structure through the decades, creating an unwieldy labyrinth of modern units and old-style cells with barred doors.

Critics say it's an appalling Victorian-era throwback that should be bulldozed.

Her Majesty's Penitentiary opened in 1859. (CBC)

'A tinderbox': defence lawyer

"The facilities themselves are barely beyond that of the medieval age," said Buckingham.

"It's understaffed, it's overcrowded, there's a lack of programs. The place is a tinderbox."

Assaults at HMP more than doubled to 41 in 2016 from 19 the year before and 20 in 2014, according to statistics from the department of justice.

Some of those assaults were merely spitting, while others are the sort of bloody attacks shown on surveillance video played in court as Edward Owens was sentenced for aggravated assault.

The facilities themselves are barely beyond that of the medieval age.- Bob Buckingham

The video shows Owens sucker-punching fellow inmate Glen Maher in the face as Maher watched TV with several other men on Feb. 23, 2015.

Maher is seen leaning over, blood pooling on the table, as Owens continues to hit him before pushing him to the floor.

Photos taken after the attack show his left eye swollen shut, his jaw bruised and his face scratched.

Other major incidents at the penitentiary in recent years include the brutal ambush in February 2014 of an inmate in the chapel that led to charges against several others. Another riot in June of that year trashed a living unit, causing tens of thousands of dollars in damages.

"I worry about everybody's safety, obviously, whether you're an inmate or staff," Justice Minister Andrew Parsons said in an interview.

Nine women are currently being housed at this intermittent unit at Her Majesty's Penitentiary. (CBC)

The penitentiary has recently been at full capacity, with 175 men serving provincial terms up to two years less a day along with those awaiting court dates on remand.

Low-risk federal offenders are also housed at HMP, as well as nine women in a separate unit due to overflow at the Correctional Centre for Women in Clarenville, about 90 minutes northwest of St. John's.

Buckingham said drug addiction, lack of help for mental health issues, more gang-related violence and double-bunking all add to tensions.

There has been talk for years of the need to replace the building, sitting on prime real estate overlooking an inner-city lake in St. John's.

'Other options' than incarceration: minister

The former Progressive Conservative government, before losing power to the Liberals in 2015, awarded a contract for initial designs of a new building. It included a conceptual floor plan and suggested location.

Progress stalled, however, as the crash of commodity prices gutted the province's offshore oil earnings and its economy slowed.

Parsons said he has raised the need for a replacement with his federal counterpart, Ralph Goodale. But with no funding commitments from Ottawa and the province facing a $1.6-billion deficit, Parsons is making no promises.

For now, Parsons is working to divert more people who can be better helped through addiction treatment, mental health supports and restorative justice.

"We need to address the fact that there may be people that shouldn't be inside. Our whole system would be better served with other options rather than just incarceration."

Assaults at HMP more than doubled to 41 in 2016 from 19 the year before, according to statistics from the justice department. (CBC)

Jerry Earle, president of NAPE, the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees, represents correctional officers who he says are "always on edge."

I compare it to the Dark Ages.- Jerry Earle

Guards continue to work 24-hour shifts at times — a practice that a review of the corrections system in 2008 called "totally unacceptable."

Public sympathy for offenders may be low, but Earle said most of those inmates wind up back in society — and Her Majesty's Penitentiary is hardly ideal for rehabilitation.

"I compare it to the Dark Ages."