Well, that’s over with.
The annual round of news stories about Her Majesty’s Penitentiary in St. John’s has come, and just as quickly gone.
It’s a familiar story, written most recently the Canadian Press’s Sue Bailey. Lawyer Bob Buckingham was quoted in the article: “The facilities themselves are barely beyond that of the medieval age. ... It’s understaffed, it’s overcrowded, there’s a lack of programs. It’s a tinderbox.”
And, of course, Buckingham is absolutely right, and the provincial government knows it.
Past governments have commissioned studies on the conditions in the prison, and recent governments, at least until oil prices fell and the bottom came out of the province’s finances, had planned to replaced the facility. The last Progressive Conservative government even began the design process.
All of that is cold comfort, because nothing has actually happened.
The 2008 report into the facility, “Decades of Darkness - Moving Towards the Light,” was written with the expectation that planning for a new prison would be well underway: “The panel believes there is an urgent need to move forward with this plan in order to provide a humane, safe environment for both correctional staff and inmates.”
That hasn’t happened, and we are now within a year of adding another decade of darkness to the facility’s dismal total.
Cracks are beginning to show in more than just the physical parts of the facility - a section of which opened in 1859. Assaults in the prison have risen from an average of 20 in the last few years to more than 40 in 2016. There are plenty of signs that the situation not only isn’t improving, but is actually sliding downhill.
There those who will say prison isn’t a holiday, and that only hard time will rehabilitate those inside. But experience has shown that not to be true, and we will have to deal with the eventually released prisoners.
It’s not hard to imagine that, as in years past, the government, after appropriate tsk-tsking and heartfelt mumblings of concern, will wait for the storm to die down and once again do absolutely nothing. The current justice minister, Andrew Parsons, has joined the government chorus with the requisite passing of the buck, saying that in tough fiscal times he has raised the issue with the federal government. Fair enough; we all know the province is grappling with massive debt. But as the years go by, it’s getting harder and harder to imagine when a new penitentiary will be anyone’s top priority.
And, in a year from now, there will be another round of news stories about the crumbling HMP.
Unless, of course, something far more tragic happens first. And if it does - or, more likely, when it does - absolutely no one will be able to claim to be surprised.