Newfoundland and Labrador has announced it is replacing its notorious Victorian-era men’s prison, one of the oldest in Canada.
Her Majesty’s Penitentiary in St. John’s, N.L. has faced decades of criticism for its harsh, violent conditions for inmates and staff, exacerbated by outdated facilities that first opened in 1859.
Justice Minister Andrew Parsons said it’s impossible to overstate the stresses on staff and inmates in the aging institution — calling its centre block one of the city’s oldest structures.
“It’s hard to conceive just how old that is. It was two years before Abraham Lincoln was elected, before a civil war was fought. In fact, it was just about a decade before our country achieved Confederation,” Parsons said Wednesday.
“This new facility is going to alleviate a lot of the stresses that our staff and inmates see on a daily basis.”
Parsons said the new 21,000-square-metre lockup will double the size of the old prison and allow for more programming, recreation and mental health services.
The announcement comes months after a report into the deaths of four inmates in the province’s prisons found overcrowding, limited health services, understaffing and insufficient training contributed to inmates’ poor mental health.
The upcoming provincial budget will allot $600,000 for the planning phase, with contractor proposals opening this summer and construction expected to begin in 2022.
Parsons said the new facility will house both men and women, to alleviate similar issues at the women’s facility in Clarenville, N.L., where two inmates died in 2018.
Pressure to replace the aging penitentiary in St. John’s kicked into high gear after four inmates died in the province’s two largest correctional facilities in the span of one year.
The death of Christopher Sutton in the men’s prison last year drew attention to the issue of administrative segregation — a form of solitary confinement used to deal with overcrowding.
Sutton had written a letter to the province’s human rights commission days before his death, describing segregation there as “by far the worst punishment a person can endure in a Canadian facility.”
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The review into the four deaths recommended replacing Her Majesty’s Penitentiary with a modern design better suited to meet mental health needs.
The team led by retired police superintendent Marlene Jesso found the old facilities meant limited access to outdoors, restrictions on inmate movements and other challenges inhibiting the development of modern correctional practices.
The justice department announced earlier this year it would re-introduce electronic monitoring and bail supervision as alternatives to incarceration.
Jerry Earle, president of NAPE, the correctional officers’ union, said the announcement is welcome news for a facility where keeping staff and inmates safe is a constant challenge.
“I’ve just visited there once and I’ve said before, the night I walked through there I just didn’t sleep,” Earle said.
“This is a very positive move for the staff and for the inmates.”