We live in an age of mass information. Many of us check Facebook and Twitter before we even have our first coffee. But as someone who has been involved in information gathering for more than three decades, I’m worried at what appears to be efforts to halt or delay the flow of news in several recent incidents in our province.
One of them is the cabin fire on the west coast on Aug. 6. It has been weeks of waiting for the RCMP to give us the official cause of death for the three victims. The place had been rife with rumours ever since a report of a murder-suicide, which certainly was justification to move the investigative process along faster than normal.
I know nothing about the medical examiner’s office, but mainland colleagues tell me there would have been a media frenzy had reporters there been asked to wait weeks for information on a tragedy that involved three people. We could at least have been told why it was taking so long.
Then there’s the riot at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary (HMP) in
St. John’s on Aug. 5. The RNC called it an “institutional disturbance.” Enough with the police-speak — it was a riot, and it was serious stuff. Video captured by NTV’s Bart Fraize showed angry prisoners with their faces masked, breaking out a window. We know it lasted five hours. We also know at least one full prison block had to be cleared by emergency responders.
Officially, police say additional resources were called in, including “senior officials at HMP, the prison’s emergency response team, RNC crisis negotiators, the public order unit, the tactics and rescue unit and other specialized RNC resources.” The RNC also confirmed that “Negotiators established and maintained communication with the inmates and were successful in negotiating a number of them out of the unit. The remaining inmates were extracted from the unit without incident by the HMP emergency response team.”
Since then, in an Aug. 7 story in The Telegram by reporter James McLeod, we read about how a prison guard described it as a riot and a hostage situation. He was quoted as saying, “There was lots of weapons on the range, like homemade shanks and stuff. They took inmates hostage. … Apparently last night they had a couple of inmates hostage, where they said they were going to slit their throat. And they were told from RNC that were outside the prison and inside that if you slit his throat, we’re coming in shooting.”
According to the correctional officer, inmates clogged toilets to flood the unit and tried to break cameras and tear off cell doors. The prison guard said that he figured there was at least half a million dollars worth of damage to the unit in question. I can’t help but shake my head that two weeks after that incident, there is still very little being said about the disturbance. I know media outlets asked the police and the Justice Department, and even the union representing correctional officers, but everyone’s lips were sealed shut.
Again, anywhere else in Canada this would be unacceptable. We have a right to know what happened behind those prison walls, and not weeks later, but within days if not hours. Something smells here, and it isn’t fish.
It’s like someone decided to put a muzzle on things and hope they just go away. We must not let that happen. Such incidents demand more information, not less.
If I had a loved one serving time at HMP, I’d be demanding answers from those in charge. And it should not come down to a matter of who is responsible to deliver the information. The individual agencies involved, the prison, the Justice Department and the RNC, all have a responsibility to tell the story.
Information does flow freely on other cases. We did learn from an overnight police report from RCMP in Bay St. George — Stephenville on Aug. 14 that an “82-year-old woman from Stephenville was caught shoplifting; property recovered; warned by police and issued a barring notice by the store.”
I’m glad we have our information sharing priorities straight.
Gerry Phelan is a journalist and former broadcaster. He can be reached at