Inside the walls

Pam
Pam Frampton
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To find out why this province needs a new prison, all you have to do is tour the old one

There are no vacancies at the Lakeside Hotel in St. John's, but fresh guests keep arriving and they somehow get packed in.

They show up under escort, doing the shackle shuffle, slightly hunched with clanking chains.

They are accommodated as well as can be expected, but that sometimes means two men per cramped, dingy cell.

The best cells are the ones with windows. - Photo by Pam Frampton/The Telegram

There are no vacancies at the Lakeside Hotel in St. John's, but fresh guests keep arriving and they somehow get packed in.

They show up under escort, doing the shackle shuffle, slightly hunched with clanking chains.

They are accommodated as well as can be expected, but that sometimes means two men per cramped, dingy cell.

There are no welcome mints on pillows here. No room service menus or mini-bars.

But there are bars. Lots of bars.

Welcome to Her Majesty's Penitentiary where, currently, 168 inmates are crammed into 142 cells - tiny, six-by-eight-foot cheerless spaces, with crumbling cement floors and rusty bed frames, dripping toilets and thin, stained mattresses.

On Tuesday, while I waited outside the main gate in the blazing sunshine before getting a tour of HMP, a blond, British woman walked briskly up to the entrance and rang the buzzer for admittance.

"Are you lost?" she asked.

"No, I'm early," I explained.

"You don't want to be early for this place," she replied wryly as the front door slid aside and she disappeared into the darkness.

°°°

Provincial Justice Minister Tom Marshall said last week he's frustrated at not being able to get Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan to even take a look at the crumbling penitentiary, let alone commit to cost-sharing a new prison.

Perhaps the Department of Justice should consider posting a video tour of The Pen on its website, and e-mailing a copy to the feds.

Because it is a disturbing, eye-opening experience that you need to see to believe.

As Van Loan's predecessor, Stockwell Day, observed last July after touring the facility, "I think if you were able to show the interior of that facility it would probably (be) one of the greatest disincentives for anyone to want to commit a crime. Because that is not a place you would want to go to."

°°°

Her Majesty's Penitentiary has been described as a 150-year-old institution, which is somewhat misleading. The oldest section did open in 1859, but that has been extensively renovated on the inside, making it effectively the newest part of HMP today.

The key problem with the prison is that it has been added onto in an ad hoc fashion over the past 55 years and the result is a rabbit warren of a facility that would be a nightmare to navigate should a fire break out.

The other problem is overcrowding - a challenge being felt in prisons right across the country. In this province, prisoners often never even make it to HMP and are, instead, forced to stay in RCMP lockups around the province, which are often overflowing themselves and not meant for long-term stays.

And if you find it difficult to summon any shred of sympathy for convicts crowded into narrow "ranges," perhaps you might have some to spare for the 100 full-time and 70 casual staff who work at HMP in a maze of offices and cubbyholes.

Perhaps you can feel for the correctional officer who has to supervise inmates working in the laundry room, where industrial-size washers and dryers crank out waves of damp heat in a room that's stifling in the summer.

Or for the guys in the control room who work below an air conditioning unit that barely functions and is held together by tape, mounted over their heads on a sagging shelf.

Or the correctional officer in the processing section, who is surrounded by shelves overflowing with bulging bags of inmates' confiscated possessions and has to use an X-ray machine to search clothing for drugs in an area where there isn't enough space to give the machine the proper clearance it requires.

"There's not enough room in here to change your mind," one employee quipped.

The building has a ventilation system that was designed for a facility that is not occupied 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It doesn't have the capacity to cool every nook and cranny and so the result is a hot, stuffy atmosphere in a shabby prison that has insufficient lighting, steep stairwells and narrow corridors.

On the day I visited, a water pipe broke on a range, and inmates and employees alike were trying to mop the muddy water off the floor.

The noise at HMP is an assault on your senses, between inmates' shouts and jangling keys, staccato dispatches over the intercom, the crackle and stutter of TVs in cells, the clanging of heavy doors and the pounding of sledgehammers being used to punch a hole in an outside wall to connect one building to a "temporary" trailer being used for inmate programming.

Sometimes inmates see a stint in segregation as an opportunity for quiet time. The guards have no such choice.

°°°

Ironically, just as some improvements are being made for inmates as a result of the October 2008 provincial review of the prison system, those same improvements can be detrimental to the needs of staff.

A few months ago, the blocked windows in segregated cells were uncovered to let in natural light. At the same time, the temporary trailer was moved up against the windows of the control room where two correctional officers monitor the segregated cells and the special handling unit, shutting out the natural light in their work space.

Meanwhile, some of the cells used for inmates in danger of harming themselves contain sharp cement corners, while the employees in charge of watching them can't get a good view of the range because their chairs are too low and they can't see out the viewing windows, and the various video monitoring systems they use are incompatible with each other.

Even high-ranking employees have offices that are crammed at the back of stockrooms, or in former cells with narrow windows and poor air circulation.

Correctional officers who wear heavy, bullet-proof vests, literally sweat their way through 12-hour shifts.

It isn't a workplace, let alone housing, fit for anyone.

Frankly, both the SPCA and the City of St. John's humane services provide superior shelter.

As part of the terms of Confederation, this province agreed to house a certain number of federal inmates, rather than incur the expense of transporting convicts far from home and bringing them back for court appearances and appeals.

Aside from P.E.I., we are the only province that doesn't have a federal prison. While Ottawa pays the roughly $200-a-day cost of housing each of the 50 federal inmates we now have island-wide, it is time the federal government stepped up to the plate and contributed to the cost of a new prison.

To dismiss the hellhole that is HMP as solely a provincial responsibility is a crime.

It's time to shine some light into our darkest corners, and let the country see the state of our largest prison.

Perhaps then, Ottawa might find the motivation to act.

Pam Frampton is The Telegram's story editor. She can be reached by e-mail at pframpton@thetelegram.com. Read her columns online at www.thetelegram.com.

Organizations: Lakeside Hotel, Department of Justice

Geographic location: St. John's, RCMP, Ottawa

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Comments

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Recent comments

  • Driver
    July 02, 2010 - 13:33

    I've worked in commercial kitchens that have most of the amenities Ms. Frampton describes(hot,stuffy,cramped,no air conditioning,dangerous people,sharp objects) and I've never done anything wrong.The guards chose to work there.It sounds like someone is really lobbying for that new prison,I wonder which politician owns the land that it will be built on?

  • mercedes
    July 02, 2010 - 13:25

    I take offense at the comparison to animals at the pound and the SPCA; THESE ANIMALS ARE INNOCENT OF WRONGDOING! But also the people at the pen, though criminals, are Gods' children and should not have to suffer these conditions either.The guards have to do a job to support themselves and their families but again not under these conditions. Where is their union?

  • Dave
    July 02, 2010 - 13:23

    Why would it take federal money to buy new mattresses?

  • Donny
    July 02, 2010 - 13:18

    Tv's in cells? It's hardly punishment to watch Judge Judy all day unless the guards hide the remote control!

  • Driver
    July 01, 2010 - 20:22

    I've worked in commercial kitchens that have most of the amenities Ms. Frampton describes(hot,stuffy,cramped,no air conditioning,dangerous people,sharp objects) and I've never done anything wrong.The guards chose to work there.It sounds like someone is really lobbying for that new prison,I wonder which politician owns the land that it will be built on?

  • mercedes
    July 01, 2010 - 20:11

    I take offense at the comparison to animals at the pound and the SPCA; THESE ANIMALS ARE INNOCENT OF WRONGDOING! But also the people at the pen, though criminals, are Gods' children and should not have to suffer these conditions either.The guards have to do a job to support themselves and their families but again not under these conditions. Where is their union?

  • Dave
    July 01, 2010 - 20:08

    Why would it take federal money to buy new mattresses?

  • Donny
    July 01, 2010 - 20:00

    Tv's in cells? It's hardly punishment to watch Judge Judy all day unless the guards hide the remote control!