Former inmate warns of volatility behind bars

Barb Sweet
Published on February 25, 2012

Robert Maher, a recovering drug addict and convicted fraudster now in a west coast halfway house, says Justice officials are risking a riot at the Stephenville prison.

Some might scoff at Maher’s story. Others might feel empathy for prisoners. Some might even take his cautionary tale to heart.

Maher, 28, was released from the West Coast Correctional Centre in early February, and says prisoners’ concerns about how they are treated are ignored and they have nothing to do at the facility, a volatile situation he warns could erupt.

“I’m not making threats by no means, because I’m out of the system now,” Maher said.

“But it’s like a puzzle. You’re going to eventually end up with the type of inmates over there all at the one time where they are going to start a riot over there. It’s like a combination lock when the combination fits — when you have the right combination, they’re just going to up that place.”

Maher was sentenced to 30 months in provincial court in Corner Brook in April 2011 on 37 charges, 17 of them fraud offences — many related to a fraudulent purchase-order con that Maher had been pulling in Corner Brook and  central Newfoundland —  plus seven for breach of probation, two for failing to appear and 11 for breaches of undertakings.

When he was sentenced, Maher — who was raised in Grand Falls-Windsor — read a letter that detailed a troubled childhood and marijuana use that began at age 11.

He told The Telegram he took magic mushrooms and acid as a teenager, but the drug use escalated when he headed to Alberta to work on oil rigs.

He said he took cocaine to stay awake during long work shifts included in the 21 days on/21 days off rotation. He said his girlfriend wanted to move back home when the couple was expecting a little boy.

“Back in the day, everybody had a dream of moving away and making money. When you get up there, you are on your own. There’s no stable footing. You do a hell of a lot of partying,” Maher said.

“You move back home and you still got the addictions, but you don’t have the money.”

Maher’s two small children are his motivation now to clean himself up. Though he and his girlfriend have split up, Maher said he’s taken his responsibilities to heart, although he can’t guarantee he’ll live up to them.

He hopes to go back to school for occupational, health and safety training.

At the Stephenville facility, where he was serving federal time, Maher said some of the toilets and showers weren’t functional and there was mould on the walls in cells and bathrooms, even though there have been renovations at the facility.

“There’s parts of the prison where inmates shouldn’t even be held. If you go to the third floor bathroom the whole ceiling is covered in mould,” Maher said.

“Twenty people got one shower and they have five toilets and only three worked. There’s four showers, but only one worked.”

Maher said after a prisoner briefly escaped in October, prisoners weren’t allowed outside.

There’s TV, but no library, Maher said, adding the gym equipment is unsafe with missing parts.

And he said a hobby shop in the facility is rarely open and even if it is, prisoners need money to buy wood.

Maher was on the inmate committee and said he wrote to the Department of Justice, asking that the prisoners be allowed to have someone come in to train them so they could make items to raise money for the hobby shop. He said that went nowhere.

Having no activities fuels fighting and scheming to get drugs smuggled in, Maher said.

Aside from a volunteer who listens to inmates, he said it can take weeks to get in to see classification officers and, because of the backlog, the appointments are brief.

According to Justice, most renovations are complete at the facility— except some rewiring — and the library was moved but is now functional.

A Justice spokeswoman also said the toilets and showers are functional. Correctional officials blame any blockages on deliberate actions by inmates, but say those problems are fixed immediately. The spokeswoman said any mould in the showers has been addressed and it has not been an issue for some time.

Prison officials also denied any issues with the hobby shop or the gym.

As for the escape, the spokeswoman said outside recreation was suspended for 2.5 weeks while security issues were addressed and since then outside recreation has been weather dependent.

Maher also tells a disturbing story about Her Majesty’s Penitentiary (HMP), claiming he was sent there in spring 2011 for observation and to wait to see Dr. David Craig, the prison psychiatrist, as he’d been prescribed medication in Corner Brook to ease his withdrawal from drugs.

He said he arrived at HMP late in the evening, was made to strip his clothing and don a gown and was placed in the infamous segregation area known as “The Hole.”

He said his cell had a broken toilet and he banged on the door repeatedly to complain, but the guard responded, “You’re not on the f--kin’ west coast now.”

Maher said he kept it up the next day and was moved, but someone else was placed in the cell with the busted toilet.

That prisoner kept flushing the toilet, causing an overflow of sewage in The Hole. He said the mess was cleaned up outside the cells but the prisoners were left two or three days in the sewage inside their cells.

Maher said he complained to the citizen’s representative but it was dismissed because the incident couldn’t be proven and nothing could be done about the policies of the prison.

“It’s very degrading. I had no mention of suicide,” Maher said. “You’re down there and you can’t see. It’s dirty as holy hell with silverfish. I was in a little tiny four by four cell with two other guys, one guy on a bed and two guys on the floor. I was using the toilet for my pillow pretty much,” Maher said.

He said after about five days, he was moved to a regular cell until he was sent back to Stephenville.

Citizen’s representative Barry Fleming couldn’t comment on the complaint.

The Justice spokeswoman said the Stephenville facility is visited once a month by a psychiatrist, but if an inmate requires mental health watch outside those visits, he must be sent to HMP.

Again, the department said malfunctioning toilets are fixed right away, but sometimes inmates cause the damage.

“In no way are inmates left in a cell with sewage for two to three days.  Most back ups can be fixed same day,” the spokeswoman said in an email response.

Maher said Newfoundland prisons are worse than hardcore facilities like the Edmonton remand.

He said he did short stints in prisons in Ontario and Alberta while awaiting court dates.

“All across Canada, people dread going to Edmonton remand,” Maher said. “That is a bad place to be, but it’s not half as bad as the HMP is.”

Because he was serving a federal sentence in Stephenville, Maher said he was able to take programming — for violence, substance abuse and attitude awareness.

“The only thing that saved me was the program offered in there,” he said.

He will be in a halfway house until July and without that transition, Maher admits he might not have a chance.

“It’s easy to teach someone on the inside because they got no choice but to listen,” he said.

“People who go right away to the streets, they just get back in their old lifestyle again.”

They don’t have resources to turn to unless they are in a halfway house, Maher said, adding there is not enough capacity in treatment centres.

For instance, the average wait for admission to Humberwood Treatment Centre in Corner Brook is six to seven weeks, according to Western Health.

Maher said the programs he took in prison encourage inmates to start a new life with new friends and stay away from bad habits.

In Ontario and Alberta, going inside was like “going inside with the boys for a party” because he had no big responsibility, he said.

“I’m not gonna be a criminal for life. … I’ve lost a lot this time around,” he said, recalling that while he was in prison, his little girl was on the phone asking him to come home to attend her Christmas concert.

“That wasn’t too pleasant.”

But he said he’s scared that the further he gets away from the programming — even if everything is going great — if he’s tempted, he’ll have nowhere to turn.

With more young people staying at home for job opportunities and more money available, Maher said he suspects drug problems will get worse in this province.

 He said many addicts who go on binges can stay clean for three weeks, so attending a rehab program of that duration might not help.

“What type of person gives in? What type of person doesn’t give in?” he said.

“You have nowhere to run.”