ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - There’s a dark aura as you walk through the doors of Her Majesty’s Penitentiary (HMP) in St. John’s, and it’s not just felt by inmates and visitors.
Those who work there every day know it well.
Many corrections officers admit working at the province’s biggest prison — known for its old age and dilapidated condition — is grim and often unnerving.
“The prison is like a dungeon,” retired corrections officer (CO) Ira Layden said. “Even the walls are grey and dull.”
But it would take more than a lick of paint to improve things, they say.
The institution, built in 1859 and renovated in 1945, 1981 and 1994, is located on the banks of Quidi Vidi Lake, one of the most scenic and visited areas of St. John’s. It needs to be replaced altogether, many COs say.
Layden calls it “the anus of the Justice Department …,” in terms of the negative work environment. “But nobody cares about what they can’t see behind the walls,” he added.
If people could, they would be shocked, COs say.
Known simply as “The Pen” to many, the aging facility houses a large number of high-security and violent prisoners, many awaiting trial or sentencing to federal institutions.
There have been a growing number of violent episodes.
One of the most serious was the 2014 riot in HMP’s chapel, where a brawl erupted involving dozens of prisoners. Two men were injured and several others were charged with criminal offences.
That was one of the worst incidents, but Layden said violence is common inside the prison.
“A lot of people in this province have no idea what type of inmate is housed at HMP,” said Layden.
He said he was threatened and had urine and feces thrown at him by prisoners.
“Some of these guys are hardened criminals and many come from other parts of Canada and from other places around the world. Some are Canada’s most wanted and dangerous people. There are murderers, serial rapists and guys who did aggravated assaults.”
A simple phone call with a girlfriend that went sour might be enough to set off a violent outburst from a prisoner, who then takes it out on others, Layden said.
“There’s a lot of testosterone inside the walls. Lots of alphas — whether it’s inmates or staff. Things can get pretty heated quickly inside. ... You’re on edge for most of your shift.
“The Pen is not a joke. It’s a dangerous place to work.”
Better medical care needed
An up-to-date prison would help alleviate security concerns, said Layden, who pointed out the prison is often filled to capacity.
He added there’s also a problem getting inmates with complex and physical health issues the help they need inside HMP, and that causes issues inside.
“(They) need to get a better understanding of how rehabilitation really works,” he said.
The retired CO said a new facility should be built and include medical units and a full-time working medical staff.
“It’s hard to respect a building that is falling down all around you and not very much is being done about it,” he said. “You can only clean and put so many Band-Aids on a misfit before you can see it really is a misfit.”
Layden said it’s especially disheartening when other forces, such as the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary, have a new state-of-the-art building, with top-notch protective equipment, yet the outmoded HMP still stands, despite many calls for an upgraded facility.
“HMP gets to hang drywall and put up Band-Aids,” he said. “We always got the hand-me-downs from the RNC.”
Layden said COs should get the same respect and consideration as other first responders, like firefighters and police officers.
Another retired corrections officer who asked not to be identified said there needs to be a better facility to provide better services for mentally ill inmates.
“Too many mentally ill prisoners are being warehoused in the prison,” the second retired CO said. “I can remember working in segregation and special handling area in Unit 1 and numerous (mentally ill) inmates were banging and yelling day and night. They would often threaten us, flood their cells, and throw feces and urine.”
The second retired CO said the facility doesn’t have the proper layout or space to accommodate rehabilitation or offer trades and other badly needed programs, suggesting a new prison should include both men’s and women’s units, a remand unit, mental health unit, provincial offenders’ wing and federal offenders’ wing, trade shops, educational areas and rehab program areas and enhanced recreational facilities.
“In the long run, it’ll provide a better environment for both officers, civilians and inmates.”
The second retired CO also noted there’s a “major problem” with psychiatric services at HMP, pointing out that the staff doctor, Dr. David Craig, immediately takes away inmates’ prescribed medications.
“It’s made many inmates suffer and lash out at staff,” the second retired CO said. “Those psychiatric services need a complete review with new doctors and services brought in.”
A CO currently working at HMP — who didn’t want to be identified — said with drug addiction and mental illness so prevalent these days, violence, aggression and threats toward staff have become unfortunate parts of the job, and the outdated facility adds to their stress.
“It’s not a great place for inmates. It’s not a great place for staff. What we want and need, we’re not getting from this building,” said the CO, who believes a new building should be built on the outskirts of the city.
“The staff has very limited resources. We need a building in which we can do our job the way they need to do it. We just feel like government is not giving us that support.”
The CO pointed out that because space is limited at HMP, there are few rooms that can accommodate group programs, which causes scheduling problems, leads to postponements and affects inmates’ rehabilitation opportunities.
The CO understands the public may not sympathize when health care and education take priority. However, the CO said inmates need adequate care as well, whether the public wants to acknowledge it or not.
“We sympathize with people who want new hospitals and schools, but we are members of the community, too, and inmates eventually do go back into the community,” the CO said. “We’re not about locking people up and forgetting about them.
“People want to ignore it, but it doesn’t make the problem go away. … As much as people want to try and forget it, this place exists and something needs to be done about it now — for everybody’s sake.”
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