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Space is tight in Newfoundland and Labrador’s correctional system

The grounds at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary in St. John’s from inside the wall.
The grounds at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary in St. John’s from inside the wall. - Glen Whiffen

Justice minister says he’s open to reconsidering prison assignments

More space is needed in the province’s adult correctional institutions, not just Her Majesty’s Penitentiary (HMP) in St. John’s.

On March 28, there was a meeting at the House of Assembly, with provincial politicians and Justice officials reviewing planned spending for the coming year. There, Supt. Don Roche offered an accounting of prison capacities as of that morning.

“Bishop’s Falls are right at capacity. Newfoundland and Labrador Correctional Centre for Women (in Clarenville) was one under capacity this morning. HMP is at 172, which is inclusive of four women, so it’s 168 (men). So we do have room,” he said. “So there’s room at the inn.”

HMP’s rated capacity, according to the Decades of Darkness report on provincial corrections (2008), is 145 male offenders. But there are also units for segregation and special handling. In 2007, The Telegram reported using all of the space there could allow another 68 people.

It’s important to identify the maximum, since HMP is being used to house overflow from other institutions, particularly as of late the prison in Clarenville, as well as transfers when deemed required by the superintendent.

Historically, the HMP inmate count has reached more than 200.

“Labrador this morning had 47. So they have room out there, also,” Roche said, continuing his report. “And the West Coast Correctional Centre (in Stephenville) is at 62, which is close to their capacity, but it’s still three to four under.”

A space here, a space there.

The numbers fluctuate constantly, including individuals serving sentences, but also other people who are on remand — being kept in custody — until their next hearing or trial date.

The prisons are hitting their limits enough that Justice Minister Andrew Parsons described prison capacity as “an issue every day” in Newfoundland and Labrador.

“I guess the biggest thing is to talk about corrections as a whole. The fact is that we do see — even though like right now this morning we see that there’s still space at these places — the fact is that capacity is an issue every single day. There are days when you’re over capacity,” he said at the meeting, before emphasizing recent efforts to reduce the numbers.

“My personal belief is that you can continue building a bigger box, but you’re not addressing the real issue, which is why do you have so many there? Like, why do we have capacity issues with women? And that spike has been there since just before I got in, and it has continued on. I think we’ve got to look at the real trend. That’s why we’re trying to do things when it comes to therapeutic courts, when it comes to — we’ve got the bail supervision (program).”

Progressive Conservative MHA Paul Davis asked in the meeting about federal commitments for a replacement for HMP in St. John’s.

The response was the same as it has been for years, including under Davis’s time as premier: no money for that.

Newfoundland and Labrador MP Seamus O’Regan recently told The Telegram it was wholly a provincial responsibility.

“Right now the big thing is that, infrastructure-wise, there’s a lot of … demands,” Parsons said. “We all see it. There’s hospitals, education — so I’d like to see it happen, but my focus, truly, has been on looking at why do we have so many people there and looking on that side. That’s where a lot of my policy focus has been.”

There are other options also being considered to potentially alleviate pressure on the system.

Davis mentioned a past look at repurposing existing facilities — switching Whitbourne and Clarenville, given the drop in young people being kept in secure custody.

“There was a pretty big cost of making Whitbourne ready to handle something different and there was always that focus we should look at a new prison,” Parsons said.

“I think we may have to go back and look at that.”

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