There’s no evidence that this week’s prison riot at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary was connected to provincial budget cuts, but one prison guard says staffing shortages aren’t making things any easier down at the Pen.
An officer at HMP, speaking to The Telegram on the condition of anonymity, was talking about the riot this week when he started explaining the challenges prison guards deal with.
“What people don’t realize is this environment that we’re down there in is crap. And it’s crap for several reasons. One, it’s a shitty building. Two, you’re dealing with, now, we’re getting more and more and more hard-case inmates,” the officer said. “Finally, the worst of the situation is f---ing government. Government has cut back positions. They won’t call people in. This place down there this summer has run short every day, and government expects people to do work when, in return, they’re turning around and slapping you in the face.”
The officer said that when the riot happened this week it was
11 p.m., and at that hour HMP is always operating with a minimum number of staff. On Monday night when the incident happened, they had the standard number of officers for a night shift, so short-staffing didn’t contribute to the riot.
However, he said on a day-to-day basis, they’re dealing with fewer guards.
“In the daytime, you’ve got so many people off on holidays now, or sick leave, or whatever. And then government goes and cuts two permanent positions down our way, and they cut other positions. They turn around now and say we’re not going to call in as many staff in the run of the day to help deal with things,” he said. “They’re expecting you to knit bodies down there, and you don’t have any wool to do it.”
Justice Minister Darin King said it’s difficult to respond to complaints from an anonymous individual, but said that there haven’t been any cuts to front-line prison staff.
“There has not been any direct effect to front-line employees. We had a number of retirements who particularly came from middle- and upper-management levels,” King said. “There were no budget cuts to the direct, front-line positions down there. They were all ancillary, support and leadership positions.”
According to the government’s budget documents, adult corrections services had its budget cut from around $31.1 million in 2012 to $29.3 million this year.
In total, 12 positions were eliminated at HMP — one of them was already vacant. Six of those positions were correctional officers, but a spokesman for the department said “those positions generally were not directly involved in front-line operations.”
One position, for example, was responsible for leave management at the prison.
The six correctional officers affected weren’t laid off; they’ve now been assigned different duties and are doing regular shift work at the prison.
King said that when it comes to staffing in the prison, he’s taking his guidance from the managers there.
“The staffing model that we use at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary is one that is developed by the professionals — the leaders down there,” he said. “They’re the ones that provide us advice on the number of guards and what they need at any particular point in time.”
King said the government is still investigating what happened Monday night. Reports indicate there was a riot and a hostage situation that lasted five hours overnight. But King made a point of specifically commending the RNC and prison staff for handling the situation and bringing it to a peaceful conclusion with no injuries to anyone.
“We have great people working down at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary,” King said.
One of the issues the correctional officer raised when he spoke to The Telegram was an increase in the number of harder-core inmates down at HMP.
“You’re no longer getting your drunk drivers or your sex offenders. You’re getting your heavy drug addicts, your (accused) murderers,” he said. “There’s more violence in the last five years than there’s ever been.”
The officer said that makes the job more difficult, and they need all the staff they can get.
King said he understands that aspect of things, and if the managers at HMP say they need more resources, that’s something he’ll take seriously.
“I think that’s a fair comment,” he said. “We’re seeing a changing culture in Newfoundland and Labrador, and the kinds of crime that we’re seeing is no doubt changing.”
Liberal justice critic Andrew Parsons said if a prison officer is speaking out to the media, that’s something King should take seriously.
“We have to listen to these guards, and they’re speaking clearly when they say that they feel that they’re not getting the support, they’re burned out, morale is low,” he said.
“The guards are stretched thin. Any way that they can avoid bringing extra people in for shifts or overtime, you’d better believe they’re doing it.”
New Democrat MHA Gerry Rogers, who’s spent a lot of time talking about prison issues, said the buildings at HMP are the core of the problem. She said she believes the whole system is broken, with a big part of that being the prison itself.
“It’s notorious,” she said. “Having spoken with guards previous to this incident talking about the unsafe working conditions … the infrastructure of the building itself makes it unsafe for both inmates and staff.”