The NDP critic for justice said she was shut out of two prisons during a recent trip across the province.
St. John’s Centre MHA Gerry Rogers said she made the request to prison officials a week before embarking on a trip across the province earlier this month for public sessions on housing concerns and other meetings on the various critic areas she covers.
But she was turned down by Justice Minister Felix Collins’ communications office and her appeal to Collins didn’t work.
The denial is unacceptable, said Rogers, who said she didn’t have a problem visiting prisons in a previous capacity. The well-known advocate and filmmaker was first elected in the fall.
“In order to be able to do my role effectively and fully as I have been elected by the people of the province, I need to have access to these facilities, Rogers said.
Correctional centres ‘not public buildings,’ department responds
“I don’t know why this would happen. I am concerned about it in order to do my job fully and in a comprehensive manner. My hope as justice critic is to be able to work hand in hand with the Department of Justice,” Rogers said.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Justice told The Telegram Rogers asked to visit the West Coast Correctional Centre in Stephenville and the Newfoundland and Labrador Correctional Centre for Women in Clarenville.
“Correctional centres are not public buildings,” the spokeswoman said in an email response.
“These are secure facilities that house inmates who are either on remand for an alleged crime or who have been sentenced for a particular crime. Tours can offer a number of logistical hurdles. The most significant of these challenges would be our ability to put in place appropriate safeguards to ensure security for visitors and to protect the privacy of inmates as not all of an inmate’s rights are taken away by virtue of their incarceration.”
The spokeswoman said Stephenville and Clarenville prisons are smaller facilities than Her Majesty’s Penitentiary (HMP) and have a more open atmosphere, “therefore making it difficult to offer tours.”
According to Justice, HMP is better suited to tours, because the department can limit interaction with inmates.
The department said it offered to meet with Rogers to answer any questions she has about the two facilities, but has not heard back from her.
Rogers doesn’t accept the first excuse she was given about not being able to tour the two facilities — that it was too short notice. Nor does she buy the privacy concerns, as prisoners who don’t want to speak don’t have to.
She is willing to talk with Collins about justice issues, but said it’s not right to prevent her from doing the job she was elected to do.
Rogers said she will continue to listen to prisoner and staff concerns even if she’s denied access to the facilities.
During her travels in Stephenville, she heard the concerns of Robert Maher.
Maher, 28, a recovering addict, had a troubled childhood capped with marijuana use that started at age 11, but said he fell into a cocaine addiction while working on oil rigs in Alberta.
He is in a halfway house after being sentenced in April 2011 to 30 months in the West Coast Correctional Centre on 37 charges, including 17 related to fraud.
In a story The Weekend Telegram, Maher shared a number of complaints about the condition of the Stephenville prison and the lack of activities there.
Justice responded to The Telegram to say problems with mould have been addressed, renovations are mostly complete and recreation facilities — library, gym and hobby shop — are operational.
Even before she met Maher, Rogers had wanted to view the facility and hear concerns of prisoners there and meet with staff delivering programs.
“The issues that Mr. Maher has highlighted are issues that cause me concern and they have to be verified,” Rogers said.
And she said in Clarenville, the cells are around a large open common area and the prisoners who didn’t want to meet her could have stayed away, so there was no privacy issue.
“These prisons are in my critic area,” Rogers said, adding the goal of the prison system should be to increase the likelihood of rehabilitation.
“In order to do that we have to have an open, transparent system.”
Rogers also said she’s gotten calls from people who have requested sentences longer than two years so they can access federal programming. She’s also fielded calls about the way mental health issues are dealt with in the system.
“If we are simply warehousing inmates, not providing them with the types of programs that will help them with their addictions issues, then it’s going to be simply a revolving door and we see that,” Rogers said.
“In the work I have done in the prisons, I have seen young men begging for help with their addictions, knowing full well if they don’t get help with their addictions they are going to reoffend.”