Someone is bound to be killed if something is not done about the dangerous situation at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary (HMP), correctional officers told The Telegram Thursday.
Speaking anonymously, three of them insist it’s time the government did something to help provide better protection to staff and inmates, both of whom fear for their safety in a volatile environment.
Sunday’s violent melee was a prime example of how things can quickly go terribly wrong at the facility, they said.
Around 4:30 p.m. that day, nine inmates armed with homemade weapons reportedly attacked accused murderer Kenny Green in the facility’s chapel before a Salvation Army service.
Several inmates, including Green, suffered minor injuries and were taken to hospital, but guards said things could’ve been a lot worse.
“Kenny Green would’ve been dead if it had not been for correctional officers,” one guard said.
“No doubt he’s tough, but we put our lives on the line to save his.”
The officer said only one staff member was in the chapel when the fight broke out, along with three clergymen. None of them were injured.
By the time RNC officers got there, correctional officers had the situation under control.
“It was insane,” the guard said. “It was everything you’d expect to see in a movie, not in real life. There was a lot of blood.”
The officer said while dealing with dangerous offenders is part of the job, things have gotten out of hand. The guards say the aging facility, lack of equipment and lack of resources are causing security concerns.
“The violence is getting worse and we’re not equipped to deal with it,” the officer said.
“We realize we’re going to face certain situations, but for God’s sake, give us the tools to deal with them.”
The officer said staff need to be armed with pepper spray and batons at all times. Currently, they carry such equipment only in certain areas of the prison at certain times.
“The type of inmate we’re dealing with these days is different than years ago.
“It’s absolutely shocking what goes on there, and we want to be prepared the best way we can if something goes wrong.”
Guards also say resources need to be better allocated.
“There’s sick leave and stress leave and some are on escorts outside the building, so when the shit hits the fan, there’s few left to deal with it.”
The need for a new facility has never been greater, they say. They say the prison — the oldest section was built in 1859, with renovations done in 1981 and 1994 — is deplorable, which makes it a depressing and stressful environment to work in.
Justice Minister Darin King told reporters this week the government is continuing with plans for a new prison.
But correctional officers say they’ll believe it when they see it.
“We’ve been hearing that for years,” the officer said.
“Even if we do get a new one, we won’t have a new prison next month or even next year. We need something done now.
“Health and safety and workers’ rights should have no price tag.”
Police get new facilities
A second correctional officer said it was difficult to see government officials proudly displaying the new Royal Newfoundland Constabulary building this past week while HMP staff have to work in such an outdated facility.
“It’s like a Third-World country down there,” the officer said. “It’s ridiculous.”
The officer said correctional officers feel forgotten by the government.
“Correctional officers saved a man’s life Sunday. Staff acted as human shields. But the Justice Department doesn’t seem to care.
“An inmate or staff member is going to be killed if something is not done now.”
A third correctional officer said since Sunday’s incident, “tensions are at a maximum.”
“It’s a tough place to work at the best of times, but it’s especially bad now. People are expecting the worst at any minute, and it’s scary because we don’t know if we’ll have any control over it the next time.
“I don’t know of one (staff member) who went home that day and didn’t hug their spouse or their kids extra hard.
“We’re lucky it ended the way it did. Bruises and cuts heal, but some things don’t.”
The officer said some guards are off on stress leave as a result of what happened. Morale is down and they want the government to hear their pleas.
Burt Blundon, the secretary for NAPE, the union representing correctional staff, said Thursday they’ve been asking the government for a year for adequate resources for HMP.
“It’s an old facility that doesn’t lend itself to high-level, maximum security,” he said.
“There’s no other way to describe it other than a dump. The minister has said they are looking into constructing a new facility, but talk sometimes is cheap …” Blundon said.
“Do we need somebody to die before something is done?”
While the Justice Department said it is conducting an internal review of what happened Sunday, Blundon said it’s not the first serious incident that’s happened at HMP.
“It’s the fourth review in three years,” he said. “How many do you need? They’re reviewing it to death. We can’t wait for another one.”
Her Majesty’s Penitentiary on Forest Road in St. John’s. — Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram