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SPECIAL REPORT EDITORIAL: Surely, we can do better

Six days after an escape attempt by two inmates, the lockdown at Her Majesty's Penitentiary has been lifted.
Her Majesty’s Penitentiary in St. John’s. — Telegram file photo

It’s time.

That’s the point, right there.

It’s time this province had a modern, purpose-designed facility to replace Her Majesty’s Penitentiary, one that can properly deliver modern services, security and a path to rehabilitation for those who have been imprisoned there.

For the last 12 days in a series of special reports, The Telegram has taken an exhaustive look at what’s wrong with the facility, and the fact that, despite judicial inquiries dating back to the 1990s, the political impetus to actually replace the facility has sputtered, stalled and only occasionally moved forwards.

You can make the argument that a new prison won’t solve the myriad of problems facing the justice system in this province. And that is certainly the case: changes to improve the justice system involve much, much more than simply bricks and mortar at one particular institution. But not moving ahead with a new prison means it’s that much harder to make any changes. The prison is not physically suited to provide much more than cages.

For its part, the federal government seems content to simply wash its hands of the issue, as if prisoners’ lives don’t matter.

And those cages have taken a toll for decades: in 1938, a prisoner dubbed HMP “a house of hell” in a letter to the editor outlining the treatment of prisoners. There are regular suicide attempts, some successful, and long periods in segregation cells.

“We’re in there for punishment for breaking the law, but what they’re doing to us is criminal,” one prisoner said of HMP staff. “They watch us deteriorate and they don’t do anything.”

It’s understandable that no government sees fixing the problems at the Pen as a vote-getter. Look at Facebook comments on our prison stories, and you’ll see that there are a healthy number of people who don’t see prisoners as people, and would rather those prisoners rotted away in the dark. They also don’t consider the bleak and cramped conditions imposed upon those who work there. Too many people fail to see that a prison sentence without any effort at supports for change simply means a cycle of imprisonment and re-imprisonment.

But sometimes, governments have to do more than simply make the most popular choices. Governments have a responsibility to all their citizens.


IN DEPTH: The Telegram's full report on HMP


For its part, the federal government seems content to simply wash its hands of the issue, as if prisoners’ lives don’t matter.

Here’s Seamus 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.”

The province, in the last budget, launched a study to see what kind of plan should be put in place to eventually replace the facility. The $100,000 study doesn’t really move anything along — but it does let the government claim to be doing something, without actually committing to anything.

And are we getting anywhere? Will the province commit to a new prison any time soon?

“I absolutely won’t be silly enough to put a time on it,” Justice Minister Andrew Parsons told The Telegram.

We’ll put a time on it.

The time is now.

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