Prison review must be made public

Randy Simms
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There was a riot at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary in St. John’s last week. For a predominantly Christian population, the event was all the more horrid because it happened inside the prison chapel, where inmates go to worship and pray. On this particular Sunday, they went to fight instead.

From all accounts, the confrontation was planned. One inmate was targeted by a gang and ended up in hospital.

A former inmate, Robert Powers, accused the prison administration of knowing the attack was coming and simply ignoring it.

“They allowed it to happen,” he said.

Powers was incarcerated at the time and said the inmates in his unit refused to go to the church service.

“Nobody went to the church because we knew what was going on that day,” he said.

According to reports, the inmates in the chapel were being supervised by a single guard.

Not surprisingly, the fight led to an outcry from prison staff regarding safety. On Monday, they set up a demonstration line outside their workplace to bring attention to the challenges they face daily.

Who can blame them?

One of the warders, Paul Taylor, a veteran of the prison service, spoke to the media about the issues inside HMP. Here’s hoping he doesn’t face any kind of disciplinary action for daring to offer an opinion on problems he knows all too well. He said gangs are now a normal part of prison life, shanks are discovered inside on a weekly basis and, most disturbing of all, “Violence is alive and well.”

According to Justice Minister Darin King, a review of safety at HMP is underway, but the results will not be made public because a lot of sensitive information will be collected.

I can accept that some of the information contained in a safety review might have to be kept close to the vest, but the majority of the report, including recommendations for improvements, should be made public. Unlike King, I think this report should be the catalyst for much-needed public dialogue.

For far too long we have viewed  prisons as warehouses for law-breakers. And to be honest, we haven’t really cared all that much about the condition of those warehouses.

As for programs to help rehabilitate inmates, we have been lagging behind there, as well. There have been countless calls from people working with inmates for years now to do the right thing: develop a modern approach to rehabilitation and build a new prison better equipped to offer the necessary programs.

Until now, we have been sitting on our hands waiting for the federal government to lend a hand.

Sadly, our national government doesn’t give a damn. Every plea made to them has fallen on deaf ears.

The provincial government said last year a new prison was coming. We had little reason to believe it

given the cutbacks imposed on the corrections service, but the chapel clash of Feb. 9 has changed things. 

The justice minister has committed the province to building a new prison. I’m taking him and the province at their word. After 155 years, it’s about time.

Now the debate will begin about where to locate it. St. John’s Mayor Dennis O’Keefe has already fired the opening volley, saying it should stay in the capital city. Others will argue that it should go to some economically depressed area, since prisons bring their own form of good economics.

It really doesn’t matter where we build it if we aren’t prepared to offer the therapies and programs that lead to rehabilitation. Bricks and bars are one thing, but actually doing something to reduce the number of repeat offenders is something else altogether.

That calls for a very spirited and public dialogue.

The justice minister would contribute significantly to that discussion if he were to say, “here — read this,” when the safety review is complete.

Randy Simms is a political commentator and broadcaster. He can be reached at

Twitter: @RandyRsimms

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Recent comments

  • Let them all go - back to god
    February 25, 2014 - 02:17

    If you can let old people, for lack of options, care and respect, via legislation, the right to die, and now young people too, in Belgium, well by, I think these incarcerated Children of God have the same rights, and should have access to all the same opportunity to die, and more. They should not be forced to live in misery as a makework project for hairy-arsed babysitters ‘nepotized’ by the judiciary. They should be reminded every morning, before they get their bowl of mush, that God, or Jesus, or Rocky and Bullwinkle, or blackness, if they prefer (or Dante motif is an option as well, for the more intellectual felon) are waiting for them on the other side, and it is painless, easy, no trouble, easy on the family, the state – a good choice. Before bed, like the snacks in the Health Science, someone goes the rounds, just checking to see who needs to be euthanized before bedtime. They deserve the right to choose death.

  • A Citazin
    February 22, 2014 - 21:38

    @Carl by the sound of it you know some of the scum at the HMC but when you home is violated now all of a sudden you have to put a security system in your home to protect your family now all of a sudden you have a extra bill a month,now keep in mind a violation that takes place while your family are sleeping.Why do you think you pay more every year for car insurance when in the thirty years of driving not once having a claim,but every year we pay more.So before you tell me to stop whining and get a better job maybe you should goto the pen and coach these people on how to get employment.

  • A citazin
    February 22, 2014 - 09:10

    Yes the guards do deserve a safe place to do their job,how many inmates are there over and over again,and most would say some are there because of petty crimes,but let me tell you drunk driving,arm robbery,selling drugs are not small crimes this is serious I don't want my children sold drugs,I don't want my kid hit by a drunk driver,I don't want my tax dollars to pay for these animals,they should be hand cuffed to their cell and only given two feet to walk around.As you know sir most of these inmates are the same repeated offenders they know the system.Go to Mass service what a joke most never seen insid a church before.Sorry I sound so cold but I get tired of paying for these people when most paydays I stuggle to pay my bills.The guards,staff,volunteers deserve better working conditions,but most what's serving time there don't deserve a meal let alone a shower..

    • Jeff
      February 22, 2014 - 12:22

      Kind of like Wild Rose, but not quite a bright.

    • Carl
      February 22, 2014 - 12:36

      If you're struggling to pay your bills, stop whining and get a better job.