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 firstname.lastname@example.org