Newfoundland and Labrador’s Opposition justice critic is singling out Justice Minister John Hogan over what she says is silence on the deplorable situation at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary and two recent deaths within its walls.
Helen Conway Ottenheimer said the PC party is concerned about “clearly worsening” prison conditions.
“We need to hear from the minister of justice and public safety. We need to hear that there is action being taken with respect to the deplorable conditions that are occurring there,” said Conway Ottenheimer on Tuesday afternoon.
Documents obtained by CBC News through an access-to-information request gave a look into the stark conditions inside the prison, including a proliferation of rodents, extreme heat, mould and staff shortages.
“We have been hearing about these conditions for months and months, if not years,” said Conway Ottenheimer. “And yet it appears that government — and in particular the Department of Justice and Public Safety, who are responsible — are not giving this the attention that it needs.”
She listed a growing number of problems at the prison, including overcrowding. There are instances where inmates are double- and triple-bunking in cells, she said, and the situation is stressful for inmates as well as staff.
Second death in four months
Flynn’s death comes four months after another man was found dead in the prison. In recent years four other inmates have died, three of them from suicide.
Ottenheimer said it’s a serious concern that there hasn’t been more information released on Flynn’s death, and she hasn’t heard any information about the man who died in August.
“We are in the dark, and the government has an obligation to inform the public about what has happened there, if there’s any connection. Is it related to conditions within the penitentiary? Is it related to staff shortages within the penitentiary?”
Ottenheimer said Hogan needs to answer questions about the prison but the Liberal government tends toward secrecy.
“There’s often secrecy and a lack of transparency that concerns me and that can be on many issues that we face within our society.”
A replacement of the aging prison was promised in 2019 — with an estimated price tag of $200 million — and scheduled to be completed in 2022. An access-to-information request in March 2022 revealed the government’s “affordability ceiling” had grown to $325 million.
The government website still lists the prison’s replacement as scheduled for 2024-25.
Ottenheimer says it will take at least five years to build a replacement, and in the interim measures need to be taken to address the prison’s problems.
One way to reduce overcrowding is releasing some minor offenders into the community with ankle monitors.
“We’re hearing from lawyers, we’re hearing from the courts. We’re hearing from all of these different stakeholders — John Howard Society, Turnings,” she said. “All of them want to work together within the criminal justice system to find some solutions. But yet we’re not hearing from the minister of justice about a plan.”
Compounding the problem is a lack of rehabilitative programs, she said, and the ones that are in place are failing to prepare inmates for being released.
There’s a wide range of stakeholders who can lend their expertise to reforming the prison system, said Ottenheimer.
“But again, it has to start with the leadership, and that’s the Department of Justice and Public Safety. They are the government that we elected and they’re here to govern.”
Government committed to new prison: statement
CBC News asked Justice Minister John Hogan for an interview but received a statement from Justice Department spokesperson Jeremy Reynolds that offered condolences to those affected by Flynn’s death, which was distressing for inmates and staff.
“We take the responsibility of having inmates in our care very seriously. Ensuring there is a safe and healthy environment in our correctional facilities is a top priority,” says the statement.
Her Majesty’s Penitentiary has a team of health-care professionals who work to give inmates access to timely care, says Reynold’s statement.
Reynolds said rehabilitation and integration is important, but that “the well-known infrastructure issues at HMP create unique challenges.”
There’s a collaborative effort between the department, Superintendent of Prisons, heads of correctional facilities and the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure to address maintenance issues, he added.
The government is still planning on replacing the prison, said Reynolds. In the meantime, the government has brought in a one-time retention bonus for correctional officers and pays officers twice their regular hourly rate if they work their first day off. There were more than 25 recruits in 2023 and more than 20 candidates are doing on-the-job training at HMP and in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
Reynolds also noted Hogan’s July announcement of $130,000 for 13 seats for Newfoundland and Labrador residents to obtain a correctional officer certificate at the Atlantic Police Academy in Prince Edward Island. All seats have been filled and classes start in January.