ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — When this province was flush with cash, a new prison wasn’t a must-have, and now with the money all spent, there’s not even a ballpark guess as to when there will be a new one.
“I absolutely won’t be silly enough to put a time on it,” Justice Minister Andrew Parsons told The Telegram.
The Liberal government’s capital to-do list lacks the fiscal might of that of the former Progressive Conservative government, the one that ushered in the era of “have” province more than a decade ago, after decades of “have not.”
Now the economic situation is more like “have” province — on paper at least — with a maxed-out credit card.
Prisons, frankly, are just not vote-getters.
Both Parsons — who has put rehabilitation and cutting recidivism rates tops on his list of prison reform priorities — and Premier Dwight Ball acknowledge the prison is archaic, with part of it dating to 1859.
“Minister Parsons has had some discussions, you know — I mean, look, the facility is old … and it comes with a lot of problems, and we understand that,” Ball told The Telegram. “So Minister Parsons, I’ve asked him now to explore what options we would have, so those discussions are ongoing. … But, I mean, this is one of those examples where it would be very important to have the federal government’s support and commitment and some resources to help us with that as well.”
Parsons said he brings the subject up whenever he gets the chance with Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale.
There’s been no commitment, Parsons said.
Ottawa washes its hands of HMP
A statement from Goodale’s office to The Telegram indicates Ottawa isn’t ready to fund a new prison, and the ball is solely in Newfoundland and Labrador’s court.
“As Her Majesty’s Penitentiary is a provincial facility, the Government of Canada is not able to comment on its funding,” Goodale’s press secretary said.
“The Correctional Service of Canada has a memorandum of understanding with the province to occasionally house federal offenders there; however, that is the extent of CSC’s involvement.”
The Telegram sought to speak with the federal cabinet representative for Newfoundland and Labrador, Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O’Regan.
About a week later, media reports on a scrum with O’Regan during an unrelated federal announcement seemed to pry open the door a tiny bit when it comes to federal help for a new prison.
His spokesman later clarified to The Telegram that it hasn’t been brought up to O’Regan by the provincial government, and is after all, a provincial facility.
Then, O’Regan’s office checked with other federal departments for a yes or a no on whether any money could be offered.
This was the answer from O’Regan’s spokesman: “It’s fully with the province. Provincial buildings, like jail, aren’t eligible for infrastructure funding from the federal government. So it’s unequivocally with the province.”
Not a political priority
Despite all hand-wringing about the state of the facility, a new prison seems hardly ever to have been much of a political priority in the last decade and beyond.
There were other things to build — nursing homes, schools, roads, the repetitively announced Corner Brook hospital, the years of a promised new Waterford Hospital, and of course the mammoth Muskrat Falls $12.7-billion hydroelectric boondoggle. (That project got federal loan guarantees).
Former premier Danny Williams, whose 2003-10 tenure ushered in the oil wealth era — confirmed through an email from spokeswoman Elizabeth Williams that on a few occasions the issue of a new prison was brought to the federal government for shared funding.
But there were many other infrastructure priorities, and a prison was simply not a priority over hospitals and schools.
It was never a possibility to have one built by the province as a go-it-alone project, as it was always considered at least partially a federal responsibility.
Williams, of course, had frosty relations with then Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
The tiff evolved into the ABC campaign — with Williams urging people to vote “anything but Conservative” — which iced the Conservatives out of all ridings in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Not at the top of the list
Former federal justice minister and the minister responsible for the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, Nova Scotia MP Peter MacKay, was the federal minister responsible for Newfoundland and Labrador from 2008-11, since there were no Tory MPs in the province at that time.
MacKay, now a partner with Baker McKenzie in Toronto, said there was never a big ask for a prison from this province.
Former Newfoundland MP Loyola Hearn had a similar story to tell — a provincial government that needed new ferries and an Atlantic Accord settlement — and a federal government that never got credit for the money it did spend here.
MacKay said if there had been a big ask, the prison would have got done.
“I am not going to say (it was) never raised or that I was not aware of it,” he said.
“It did not make its way, certainly, into the top echelon of what the province of Newfoundland and Labrador was seeking from Ottawa. … I don’t recall that ask being there. And if it was, it wasn’t put to the top of the list. You start at the top and work down,” MacKay told The Telegram in a lengthy telephone interview.
“And yes, to answer your question. If the province said, ‘This is our No. 1 project. This is the one we really want you to fund,’ it would have got funded. Sure, it would. Of course.
“Prisons don’t tend to be traditional projects that the public get behind in any significant way. So, I suspect there was an element of political popularity that went into the decision of what Newfoundland and Labrador wanted to get funded and what they didn’t.”
Around the same era as when MacKay was representing Newfoundland and Labrador in cabinet, the Nova Scotia government was announcing a new prison to be built in Pictou County, part of his then riding. The Northeast Nova Scotia Correctional Facility, announced in 2011 and opened in 2015, replacing the Antigonish and Cumberland correctional facilities, which were built in 1948 and 1890, respectively.
The facility cost the Nova Scotia government $42.3 million. According to the Nova Scotia Justice Department, it was done without federal partnership.
But MacKay said provincial governments have discretion when it comes to how they use federal transfers.
Because HMP existed prior to Newfoundland and Labrador’s late entry into Confederation in 1949, it has been stuck with the label of a provincial prison in Ottawa’s eyes, MacKay explained.
However, St. John’s defence lawyer Jerome Kennedy, who was a justice minister in the Williams government from 2007-08 and commissioned the scathing “Decades in Darkness” report on HMP, said he wrote a letter during his tenure to Ottawa arguing the opposite about Confederation — that because this province was the only one without a designated federal prison, HMP — since it houses federal prisoners at times — should be considered eligible for federal capital funding.
On several occasions, he said he asked the federal government to go in on a new facility.
Peter MacKay said how the political deck is stacked federally and provincially can determine what gets pushed ahead, and that’s when funding can get creative. To say HMP is a provincial responsibility isn’t written in stone when the political parties are the same colour in both seats of power.
At the time when there were Tories in both Newfoundland and Labrador and Ottawa, the scene was complicated by the ABC campaign and our frosty relations with then prime minister Harper.
But there’s now a Liberal government in the province and one in Ottawa.
“It comes back to political will,” MacKay said. “It’s political will that gets these things done.
“There is a Liberal government in Newfoundland and Labrador and a Liberal government in Ottawa. If those two entities can’t work it out, then our system is failing. If it is a priority for them and they want to get it, it would get done. They would get it done.”
MacKay, a former Crown prosecutor in Nova Scotia, agrees HMP is long past its usefulness.
“We did a prison tour when I was in Opposition way back in the 1990s. I think that was when I first set foot in it. That is 20-odd years ago now and it was old then. I can’t imagine it has gotten any better…,” he said.
“Look — the levels of government partner all the time, every day, on projects. This game — and I have played it myself where you blame the other level of government — that only goes so far. If you want to get it done, you will get it done. You will find a way. That’s where ACOA used to be very, let’s say, creative about funding. There are legitimate and legal ways to do it. … But partnering so that all levels of government come together to meet a significant public infrastructure need to get it done.
“It is sort of like when you are friends with somebody versus strangers. When you are of the same political strategy, it is much easier to get things done and to move the levers of government.”
Prisons in the news
Justice Minister Andrew Parsons said he’s been trying to put prison issues on the public agenda with visits to the facility and media photo-ops on creative programming like gardening, so that people who have never set foot in a courtroom might empathize. It’s not about being soft on crime, but reducing the rate of reoffending, he said.
Recent inmate deaths at HMP and the women’s prison in Clarenville — two in each — have catapulted the facilities back into the news since The Telegram began looking into the history of funding requests.
The former provincial PC government had identified a possible new location and developed some blueprints and Parsons still pegs hopes on some federal co-operation.
“I think there is willingness to partner with us. They worked with us on (Memorial University’s $325-million) core science facility,” Parsons said.
In a January 2014 letter obtained under federal Access to Information legislation, then Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Minister Steven Blaney got around to thanking then Justice Minister Darin King for his congratulations the previous fall.
“I am aware of your province’s announcement of plans to build a new prison,” Blaney said in a letter copied to the minister then responsible for ACOA, Rob Moore, and to MacKay, then minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada.
“I understand that replacing Her Majesty’s Penitentiary is an important issue for Newfoundland and Labrador, as it will significantly improve the safety of inmates and staff and provide enhanced rehabilitation services to offenders. Although we are not in a position to support a capital contribution, we look forward to continuously strengthening our collaborative relationship through our unique partnership.”
Five years earlier, the Consumers Health Awareness Network of Newfoundland and Labrador had begged then Attorney General Rob Nicholson to approve funding for a new prison, arguing that 66 of the 165 inmates in April 2009 were federal prisoners (The province receives payments from Ottawa for the accommodation of federal prisoners).
The premise was that based on the fact many prisoners suffer mental illness, the overcrowded, outdated facility was not equipped to accommodate inmates’ needs, but that the province couldn’t do anything about it on its own.