Province takes steps towards construction of new prison

Josh Pennell
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The province hasn’t given up all hope that the federal government is going to come on board with funding for a new correctional institution, but it’s getting the ball rolling on the project, regardless.

Justice Minister Darin King speaks with the media on Monday about the provincial government going forward with plans for a new prison, with or without federal government funding. — Photo by Josh Pennell/The Telegram

Justice Minister Darin King  announced Monday the provincial government is proceeding with plans for a new penitentiary.

“We can wait no longer to begin the process. For the well-being of our staff and our inmates, we must start planning the new facility,” King said at a news conference on Monday.

Replacement of Her Majesty’s Penitentiary (HMP) was recommended in 2008 after a review of the prison system. The original cell block of the facility is more than 150 years old. Issues with the building, including its safety and functionality, have been raised on numerous occasions.

In addition, King said this province is one of only two that doesn’t have a federal correctional facility, a fact made all the more interesting given that federal prisoners are kept at HMP.

Despite such arguments, the province has been locked out by the feds when it comes to new prison money to date. King said the federal government has given no commitment or suggestion that a commitment is coming to help fund a new facility, but the province couldn’t wait any longer.

“Later this week, a public request for proposals will be issued for companies with expertise in planning correctional facilities,” he said.

The size, cost, schedule and even location of the facility are yet to be determined.

Several sites for a new prison — a federal one — were identified in the past, including St. John’s, Stephenville and Harbour Grace.

Though King made no mention of any location and said one wouldn’t be determined until at least 2014, former Justice minister and recent Liberal, Tom Osborne, fsaid there might be something sly if not quite criminal to the government’s timing in announcing that it will now go the new prison project alone.  

“This is simply a carrot being dangled over the district of Carbonear in front of a by-election,” Osborne said.

Jerome Kennedy recently announced he is leaving politics, meaning a byelection in his district of Carbonear-Harbour Grace is imminent.

More doubting came from the NDP. George Murphy said with the amount of unproductive planning he’s seen from the government, he wasn’t sure how convincing it was that it is now taking the first steps to build a new corrections facility.

”It wouldn’t surprise me that the population of this province are still going to be skeptical over this one,” Murphy said.

King focused on the possibilities of the project — a new modern facility that would be safer for correctional workers and offer much more in the way of rehabilitation potential for inmates.

“It’s not ideal living conditions for inmates. It’s not ideal living conditions for correctional workers who are down there trying to do their jobs,” King said of the current penitentiary.

Osborne went so far as to call the prison not fit for inmates to live in.

Graham Rogerson, the superintendent of prisons in the province, said this announcement has been a long time coming and spoke about improving rehabilitation success for inmates, including having the room to teach them skills they can use whenthey re-enter society.

As for the price, King was very direct about not being direct.

“We don’t have a budget in mind and I certainly wouldn’t even speculate on that, to be frank with you, because we’ve done that a number of times on other facilities in the past and then we tend to get held to the numbers,” he said.

By 2014, the provincial government wants a list of proposals giving the specifics of building a new facility — size, design, cost, etc.

King said the province will still work with the federal government if it comes to the table, but at this point, the government is going it alone.

In 2009, then Justice Minister, Tom Marshall was vocal about his loss of patience with Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan, who was supposed to come down and tour HMP.

Marshall said then the province was after a 70-30 cost-sharing ratio, with Ottawa covering the 70 per cent on a new facility. When The Telegram contacted Van Loan at the time, the response was not encouraging.

"As this is a provincial facility, the prison and its future are entirely the responsibility of the province," a spokesman for Van Loan wrote in an email.

If that possibility was on King’s mind, he gave little indication of disappointment or pessimism.

“It is the first step in a process, but a very important step,” he said.

HMP first opened in 1859 and can accommodate 175 inmates.

Organizations: NDP

Geographic location: Carbonear, Ottawa

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