Former inmate warns of volatility behind bars

Barb Sweet
Send to a friend

Send this article to a friend.

Robert Maher, a recovering drug addict and convicted fraudster now in a west coast halfway house, says Justice officials are risking a riot at the Stephenville prison.

Some might scoff at Maher’s story. Others might feel empathy for prisoners. Some might even take his cautionary tale to heart.

Maher, 28, was released from the West Coast Correctional Centre in early February, and says prisoners’ concerns about how they are treated are ignored and they have nothing to do at the facility, a volatile situation he warns could erupt.

“I’m not making threats by no means, because I’m out of the system now,” Maher said.

“But it’s like a puzzle. You’re going to eventually end up with the type of inmates over there all at the one time where they are going to start a riot over there. It’s like a combination lock when the combination fits — when you have the right combination, they’re just going to up that place.”

Maher was sentenced to 30 months in provincial court in Corner Brook in April 2011 on 37 charges, 17 of them fraud offences — many related to a fraudulent purchase-order con that Maher had been pulling in Corner Brook and  central Newfoundland —  plus seven for breach of probation, two for failing to appear and 11 for breaches of undertakings.

When he was sentenced, Maher — who was raised in Grand Falls-Windsor — read a letter that detailed a troubled childhood and marijuana use that began at age 11.

He told The Telegram he took magic mushrooms and acid as a teenager, but the drug use escalated when he headed to Alberta to work on oil rigs.

He said he took cocaine to stay awake during long work shifts included in the 21 days on/21 days off rotation. He said his girlfriend wanted to move back home when the couple was expecting a little boy.

“Back in the day, everybody had a dream of moving away and making money. When you get up there, you are on your own. There’s no stable footing. You do a hell of a lot of partying,” Maher said.

“You move back home and you still got the addictions, but you don’t have the money.”

Maher’s two small children are his motivation now to clean himself up. Though he and his girlfriend have split up, Maher said he’s taken his responsibilities to heart, although he can’t guarantee he’ll live up to them.

He hopes to go back to school for occupational, health and safety training.

At the Stephenville facility, where he was serving federal time, Maher said some of the toilets and showers weren’t functional and there was mould on the walls in cells and bathrooms, even though there have been renovations at the facility.

“There’s parts of the prison where inmates shouldn’t even be held. If you go to the third floor bathroom the whole ceiling is covered in mould,” Maher said.

“Twenty people got one shower and they have five toilets and only three worked. There’s four showers, but only one worked.”

Maher said after a prisoner briefly escaped in October, prisoners weren’t allowed outside.

There’s TV, but no library, Maher said, adding the gym equipment is unsafe with missing parts.

And he said a hobby shop in the facility is rarely open and even if it is, prisoners need money to buy wood.

Maher was on the inmate committee and said he wrote to the Department of Justice, asking that the prisoners be allowed to have someone come in to train them so they could make items to raise money for the hobby shop. He said that went nowhere.

Having no activities fuels fighting and scheming to get drugs smuggled in, Maher said.

Aside from a volunteer who listens to inmates, he said it can take weeks to get in to see classification officers and, because of the backlog, the appointments are brief.

According to Justice, most renovations are complete at the facility— except some rewiring — and the library was moved but is now functional.

A Justice spokeswoman also said the toilets and showers are functional. Correctional officials blame any blockages on deliberate actions by inmates, but say those problems are fixed immediately. The spokeswoman said any mould in the showers has been addressed and it has not been an issue for some time.

Prison officials also denied any issues with the hobby shop or the gym.

As for the escape, the spokeswoman said outside recreation was suspended for 2.5 weeks while security issues were addressed and since then outside recreation has been weather dependent.

Maher also tells a disturbing story about Her Majesty’s Penitentiary (HMP), claiming he was sent there in spring 2011 for observation and to wait to see Dr. David Craig, the prison psychiatrist, as he’d been prescribed medication in Corner Brook to ease his withdrawal from drugs.

He said he arrived at HMP late in the evening, was made to strip his clothing and don a gown and was placed in the infamous segregation area known as “The Hole.”

He said his cell had a broken toilet and he banged on the door repeatedly to complain, but the guard responded, “You’re not on the f--kin’ west coast now.”

Maher said he kept it up the next day and was moved, but someone else was placed in the cell with the busted toilet.

That prisoner kept flushing the toilet, causing an overflow of sewage in The Hole. He said the mess was cleaned up outside the cells but the prisoners were left two or three days in the sewage inside their cells.

Maher said he complained to the citizen’s representative but it was dismissed because the incident couldn’t be proven and nothing could be done about the policies of the prison.

“It’s very degrading. I had no mention of suicide,” Maher said. “You’re down there and you can’t see. It’s dirty as holy hell with silverfish. I was in a little tiny four by four cell with two other guys, one guy on a bed and two guys on the floor. I was using the toilet for my pillow pretty much,” Maher said.

He said after about five days, he was moved to a regular cell until he was sent back to Stephenville.

Citizen’s representative Barry Fleming couldn’t comment on the complaint.

The Justice spokeswoman said the Stephenville facility is visited once a month by a psychiatrist, but if an inmate requires mental health watch outside those visits, he must be sent to HMP.

Again, the department said malfunctioning toilets are fixed right away, but sometimes inmates cause the damage.

“In no way are inmates left in a cell with sewage for two to three days.  Most back ups can be fixed same day,” the spokeswoman said in an email response.

Maher said Newfoundland prisons are worse than hardcore facilities like the Edmonton remand.

He said he did short stints in prisons in Ontario and Alberta while awaiting court dates.

“All across Canada, people dread going to Edmonton remand,” Maher said. “That is a bad place to be, but it’s not half as bad as the HMP is.”

Because he was serving a federal sentence in Stephenville, Maher said he was able to take programming — for violence, substance abuse and attitude awareness.

“The only thing that saved me was the program offered in there,” he said.

He will be in a halfway house until July and without that transition, Maher admits he might not have a chance.

“It’s easy to teach someone on the inside because they got no choice but to listen,” he said.

“People who go right away to the streets, they just get back in their old lifestyle again.”

They don’t have resources to turn to unless they are in a halfway house, Maher said, adding there is not enough capacity in treatment centres.

For instance, the average wait for admission to Humberwood Treatment Centre in Corner Brook is six to seven weeks, according to Western Health.

Maher said the programs he took in prison encourage inmates to start a new life with new friends and stay away from bad habits.

In Ontario and Alberta, going inside was like “going inside with the boys for a party” because he had no big responsibility, he said.

“I’m not gonna be a criminal for life. … I’ve lost a lot this time around,” he said, recalling that while he was in prison, his little girl was on the phone asking him to come home to attend her Christmas concert.

“That wasn’t too pleasant.”

But he said he’s scared that the further he gets away from the programming — even if everything is going great — if he’s tempted, he’ll have nowhere to turn.

With more young people staying at home for job opportunities and more money available, Maher said he suspects drug problems will get worse in this province.

 He said many addicts who go on binges can stay clean for three weeks, so attending a rehab program of that duration might not help.

“What type of person gives in? What type of person doesn’t give in?” he said.

“You have nowhere to run.”

Organizations: West Coast Correctional Centre, The Telegram, Department of Justice Humberwood Treatment Centre

Geographic location: Stephenville, Corner Brook, Alberta Newfoundland Edmonton Ontario The Hole Canada

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5

Thanks for voting!

Top of page



Recent comments

  • Justin Jordan
    July 27, 2012 - 10:22

    I am glad to see a former inmate trying to help others by keeping them out of there. We need to be smarter and stay out of places like that. renovations and home improvements

  • JW
    March 01, 2012 - 10:21

    Thank God there are at least a few multifaceted thinkers in this thread. It restores the faith I have been rapidly losing in my own peoples ability to be capable of logic, or at least compassion.

  • Ben Dover
    February 28, 2012 - 15:38

    To all those posters who say "Suck it up", will you post again saying you think those posh spa "prison" facilities that Aboriginals and Women are sent to should be closed, and they too should live in filthy and dangerous prisons like HMP??? I'll be checking, but I bet almost none of you do...

  • Debbie
    February 27, 2012 - 16:34

    If I were commenting on this article 2 years ago, I would be thinking “Suck it up Buddy . . .You made your bed!” Now that this situation has hit home, I view it a little differently. This and many stories like it have been in the news quite a bit recently and I suspect there are problems within the system that need addressing, given this article made the front page. The unfortunate thing however, is that it is the prisoners who bring it to light. Who is going to pay attention to that? They’re criminals right? There is actually another institution that has very similar conditions, ever been at the Waterford Hospital? Ever visit someone on a ward? It is an extremely depressing place, damp and dirty with plenty of mould in plain site. Who complains about those conditions? The patients complain. Who pays attention to the patients? Nobody . . . because they are crazy right? The general public will ignore these issues or degrade them, just as some of those who have commented here have done. Anybody who has had any experience with depression will tell you that their surroundings affect the way they feel and function on a daily basis. Maybe . . . Just maybe . . . If the system provided a suitable environment on the inside, accompanied with suitable rehabilitation programs and follow up support, we may just see a decrease in the number of repeat offenders. If the only purpose of imprisonment is to pay for your crimes with little or no rehabilitation, then our system is set up perfectly. But if the cycle is to be broken, you have to start with the individual and that encases more than four walls and a pot to piss in.

  • Marnie
    February 27, 2012 - 08:35

    I think that everyone should be proud of Robert, he's obviously been through hell and back. Yes, he's a repeat offender, sometimes it takes more than one try to succeed, I commend him. He's only informing everyone of a potential situation that could be diffused now, instead of letting it escalate out of control. I think that everyone is entitled to basic human needs. People should not be judgemental because even if they don't end up in jail, one of their loved ones could, it's not easy for family members to live through this ordeal, especially their children. Just have compassion for those who go through it alongside them, and understand that rehabilitation takes a lot of work, if the guards and professionals can't do their jobs, well maybe they should find other employment.

  • yo mama
    February 26, 2012 - 14:42

    Guess he shouldn't have used sympathy for any of them. You made your beds, now lay in them.

  • akwench
    February 25, 2012 - 16:40

    People are thrown in jail every day for laws they are unaware of breaking. People are jailed for government snafus, such as the poor prisoners being accused of Stolen Valour because the government that charges them with a crime were the ones that lose the paperwork one needs to prove their innocence....all so as to take away their VA benefits, with the insult added of being labeled a felon. America wake up, our own government proves every day they are our new generations biggest enemy.

  • akwench
    February 25, 2012 - 16:25

    People are thrown in jail every day for laws they are unaware of breaking. People are jailed for government snafus, such as the poor prisoners being accused of Stolen Valour because the government that charges them with a crime were the ones that lose the paperwork one needs to prove their innocence....all so as to take away their VA benefits, with the insult added of being labeled a felon. America wake up, our own government proves every day they are our new generations biggest enemy.

  • clifford
    February 25, 2012 - 15:10

    If you don't like the conditions, straighten yourself up and don't go back.

  • CJ
    February 25, 2012 - 14:15

    This is JAIL, it's not a hotel. There may be structural deficiancies, but I can guarantee you, it's better living conditions that alot of Newfoundlanders who are living on the streets and even in housing, so suck it up and get over it.

  • bill
    February 25, 2012 - 13:36

    What is incarceration without rehabilitation? You can measure a society by how it treats its prisoners. Remember legality is not always synonymous of morality and what if it was one of your loved ones in jail???

  • Mudguy
    February 25, 2012 - 13:12

    It's not about the existing conditions it's about rehabilitation. People are going to do things wrong at times, we all make mistakes just some peoples mistakes lead to Jail time. What we need to do to reduce costs and help stop repeat offenders is to educate not humiliate. We need to teach these individuals right from wrong, we need to have places like half way houses, prison libraries, psychiatric help etc. right down to working toilets and mold free institutions. We are all human and we need to help one another be successful not ridicule it doesn’t help. Many of these inmates have mental health issues and without the proper help will be back in jail as quick as they were released. It's a vicious circle and if we continue to be so condescending the tax dollars it does take to operate these facilities will continue to escalate and be thrown away each year however if we can just help one person from making a return trip we save money. I have read all the comments and by the way i have never spent a night inside a prison however I’ve done some things I’m not too proud of growing up and am very thankful that I had the right people in my life to help me make the right decisions. Not everyone is has lucky and for those we need to be supportive and providing degrading facilities to an already volatile situation does nothing to help with the problem.

  • Joe
    February 25, 2012 - 11:53

    I really could care less about jail conditions.... I never intend on being in there... it's just that simple. Stop bawling and smarten up.

  • West coast newf
    February 25, 2012 - 11:17

    I agree with the latest comments here, if you don't like it jail, get your act together and stay out of there, I love how criminals try to make society feel bad for them and are always the victim here. Jail is the way it is for a reason, if you can't to the time, well don't to the crime!

  • MBC
    February 25, 2012 - 11:15

    Why is Barb Sweet always writing about concerns of inmates but never the of concerns of victims. If inmates have such concerns why do they go there 4 or 5 times; grow up and get a life.

    February 25, 2012 - 10:47


  • Dwayne
    February 25, 2012 - 10:41

    I've got a novel idea !!!! Stay the hell out of jail.....

  • Bwahaha
    February 25, 2012 - 10:24

    Yes, Jen, instead of wasting money on schools and hospitals, lets make HMP a priority. A few big screen tvs and some comfortable furniture would make a nice start. I might have suggested an improved culinary experience too, but the last time that the pen tried to stick to the Canada food guide, the inmates rioted, preferring instead their hamburgers and fries. Oh, and let's try to improve the view, too. Maybe we could move it to the Battery hotel. After all, we do not want to discourage admittance to the pen, do we?

  • stephen
    February 25, 2012 - 10:01

    Wah wah wah the big bad prison is dirty,wah wah wah, i done cocaine cause it was there, wah wah wah,money made me do bad things wahwah wah i had a rough childhood, well so did I son and i went out west,but I never took dope and stuff so wah wah wah. next time stay out of the pen and you won,t have to whine,if they start a riot,it wouldn,t be the first prison riot in the world,so the chips will fall where they may.

  • Political watcher
    February 25, 2012 - 10:00

    To Justice Officials: after reading you comments I have to think what the CO go through; we see these inmates when they are being lead into court, the curse, threaten the watchers and most recently they spit at reporters. I can only wonder that if they are acting like that in a very publc setting what are they doing when inside. I remember a while ago at the lock up when an officer was procesing a criminal, the second he took the cuffs off the criminal sucker punched him. Inmates intentionally flooding cells, throwing and demolishing furniture and the list goes on. The workers at these facilities need protection as well, if an inmate intentionally damamges or destroys items then he has to live with the consequences. On this particular story I have litle sympathy; this guy semed to have it all, family and steady job earning great money; he uses the xcuse that he needed cocaine to stay awake during long shifts, well, I know people who work long shifts and over night shifts and none of them turn to coke to keep going. Listen, prison is not a nice place and if you are a victim of crime you say so what, they deserve it. The best solution is to stay out, everyone can make a mistake but it is not the first time offender that are sent to these facilities, it is the severe and repeat offenders.

  • jen
    February 25, 2012 - 09:49

    Hello...............i think the goverment NEEDS a wake up call to let them know exactly how DIRTY the jails really are in Newfoundland and also how the correctional officers are really treating these people, i have never been in side a jail bfore but have heard alot of horror stories about them and i think it's the governments fault that pl are getting out of jail and reoffending again take a look at how there a treated and what they are living in i think it would be almost impossible to come out of those jails sensable, People need to keep in mind that everyone makes mistakes but NOONE deserves to live that the prisoners do in NEWFOUNDLAND!!!

  • NowIsee
    February 25, 2012 - 09:08

    Are you saying prison is not nice. Go figure, I always thought it was like going to the Hilton or a spa. Maybe you should try staying away from those sort of not nice places...

  • ToJusticeOfficials
    February 25, 2012 - 09:04

    There is no doubting this guys story. Everything he's saying here is true. Right down to the comments from the Guard. That's what I will focus on. Justice knows of all the deplorable conditions that inmates and guards live in. Justice also knows that those conditions regularly spurn off the cuff derrogatory comments towards those being Rehabilitated inside. However without every guard, cop or sheriff being set up to a recordable mic-pak, like in the U.S, there is no proof to hold anyone accountable. Face it our Government couldn't give a pinch of shit if a C/O (corrections officer) treats a criminal like dirt or a Sheriff fires someone in a cell from a blind spot on the camera. It comes down to stockpile and warehouse the criminals till they complete there bit and fire them back on the street to repeat the cycle. It's actually moronic to see the Justice lackies roaming around the prison and court houses with their clip boards and pens assessing what they know nothing about! Dof the business casual and don a uniform for a month and get in and work side by side in the trenches and see what really goes on behind the steel doors. Who are we kidding? Nobody has the Balls to let that happen

  • sparky
    February 25, 2012 - 08:07

    We had the same problems when I was at Alcatraz Prison, I kept telling people but no-one cared? If I was inprisoned today I would have a lawyer demand that I be sent to TRUMP TOWERS in Ontario to serve-out my time! LOL LOL LOL