Tough cell

The Compass - - EDITORIAL -

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.

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