Nfld. & Labrador

Clock ticking on historical prison documents, former correctional officer fears

David Harvey carefully turns the pages of an old prison ledger, the binding cracking as he shuffles each page.

Retired HMP captain turned amateur historian hopes documents can be preserved — fast

David Harvey, a former captain at Her Majesty's Penitentiary, hopes old documents on the prison's history can be preserved for generations to come. (Gary Locke/CBC)

David Harvey carefully turns the pages of an old prison ledger, the pages ripped, the binding cracking as he shuffles each page.

It's this document and hundreds more that are at stake if someone doesn't take the necessary steps to preserve them, he says.

"These old documents have seen better days, they are starting to get old, the ink fades away and you can't read them, Harvey said, "So I want to get that stuff out of here before it gets too bad."

A ledger from the 1940s detailing inmates names and the crimes that brought them to Her Majesty's Penitentiary is deteriorating. (Gary Locke/CBC)

"Here" is the basement of an administration building in front of Her Majesty's Penitentiary on Forest Road in St. John's.

Harvey has used the space for years as a makeshift museum to crime and punishment, documenting the long and sordid history of the penal system in Newfoundland and Labrador. 

CBC News first spoke with Harvey in 2015 — then newly-retired, the former correctional officer wanted help digitizing the items he, other guards and inmates have collected over the years at HMP.

Dark history

Contraband weapons, old ropes used in failed jail breaks, clay pipes and homemade tattoo machines are kept in glass cases, next to significant documents from Newfoundland's justice system. 

Harvey started archiving the material after discovering boxes of old documents two decades ago in the basement of the prison's gymnasium. 

Ledgers listing the names of inmates and their criminal offences are held in the basement of the administration building next to Her Majesty's Penitentiary on Forest Road. (Gary Locke/CBC)

The oldest piece of paper dates back to 1838, when the prison was on Duckworth Street. HMP was first built in the Victorian era and has been witness to five hangings. 

Documents outline what the inmates ate and what their last words were as they were led to the gallows. 

Two years ago Harvey reached out to The Rooms, which houses the provincial archives, a museum and art gallery, to take the items to be preserved for generations to come. But, Harvey said things appear to have come to a halt.

"I haven't given up. I think I'm getting a little closer again now to getting these documents out of here and ... properly stored at The Rooms," he said.

"The Rooms are ready to take them. I'm just waiting on the word now from the Department of Justice — they have to decide exactly what they want to remove from here."

Justice department responsibility

An official with The Rooms confirmed they're interested in taking the documents and have visited Harvey's collection. However, they do not believe the current collection is at risk of being destroyed.

The holdup, Harvey said, is the possibility of a museum being part of a new penitentiary — when and if it ever happens. 

"The Department of Justice [is] concerned over what we give away and can we get it back if need be," he said.

The MHP museum has old photographs of inmates, as well as historic documents. (CBC)

In a statement, the Department of Justice and Public Safety said it's working on moving the items to The Rooms.

"This will happen once appropriate arrangements have been made in order to ensure the department retains access to the items," a spokesperson said.

Helping fill gaps in genealogy

In the meantime, Harvey continues to add to his collection. Just two weeks ago, someone brought him a package of tobacco that guards used to give inmates in the eighties and nineties. 

Dave Harvey shows one of the donations he's received ... in this case packs of Export A tobacco from about 40 years ago. (CBC)

Then, there are the requests from people as far away as the United States and the United Kingdom who believe their relatives have either served time or worked at HMP.

Recently Harvey received a request from a woman in central Newfoundland, who learned while tracing her family history that a relative was one of the people who was hanged at HMP.

Harvey found out what he could and sent the information to her, he said.

"I may not think about down here for a month but all of a sudden, one little thing I hear about and that will send me up to the archives or back down here again and it renews my interest." 

Watch an interview with David Harvey from 2015, below.

Retired prison guard David Harvey

7 years ago
David Harvey describes what he thought when he came across documentation of Newfoundland's first prison 1:36


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