The harsh state of HMP — now that’s a crime

The Labradorian - - EDITORIAL - Bob Wake­ham

Even the worst kind of repro­bates who wind up in prison in New­found­land de­serve at least a half-de­cent, mod­ern build­ing in which to serve their sen­tences…

Like most peo­ple, I have a num­ber of re­cur­ring dreams.

There are night­time ex­cur­sions into the sub­con­scious that bring dis­com­fort more so than fright, those that could be placed in the cat­e­gory of bad dreams.

For in­stance, go­ing back in time to a CBC news­room where ev­ery­thing that can go wrong is go­ing wrong (we’ve “gone to black” a half dozen times); find­ing my­self walk­ing naked through the Avalon Mall (now there’s an en­thralling, gor­geous sight, if ever there was one); or be­ing to­tally un­pre­pared for a fi­nal test in univer­sity that will dic­tate whether or not I grad­u­ate.

But there’s also the scat­tered night­mare that haunts me with reg­u­lar­ity and causes me to wake in a sweat, even prompts a scream on oc­ca­sion, un­til I emerge into full con­scious­ness with a re­lief that is amaz­ingly pal­pa­ble.

Ob­vi­ously, a sense of un­char­ac­ter­is­tic pro­pri­ety, to say noth­ing of guar­an­teed pub­lic em­bar­rass­ment, pre­vents me from re­veal­ing the con­tents of most of those noc­tur­nal trips to hell and back.

But there’s an aw­ful night­mare I ex­pe­ri­ence with a fair amount of nerve-wrack­ing con­sis­tency, one I was re­minded of this past week when the lat­est news cov­er­age emerged on the God-aw­ful con­di­tions that ex­ist in Her Majesty’s Pen­i­ten­tiary (Cana­dian Press re­porter Sue Bai­ley had a real fine story on the front page of The Tele­gram on Mon­day); as you’ve prob­a­bly guessed, in this dream from perdi­tion I’m a pris­oner in “the Pen,” scared to death and acutely aware that this is the last place on Earth (or at least in New­found­land) I wish to be.

Now, such a night­mare may have its ge­n­e­sis from my long­time knowl­edge that only the kind of luck you’d as­so­ciate with an out­house rat has kept me from end­ing up in handcuffs, be­ing driven down For­est Road and put to bed in that ho­tel with the mi­nus-star rat­ing and a view of Quidi Vidi Lake. (I did ac­tu­ally spend sev­eral hours in the St. John’s Lockup, long enough to know I wouldn’t be hav­ing a nap on a mat­tress stained with God-knows-what, and to swear to my­self that I’d never end up there again).

Ply­ing my trade as a jour­nal­ist, I’ve also been in­side the Pen sev­eral times, enough to al­low me to see first hand that its rep­u­ta­tion for openly wear­ing the scars of an an­cient in­sti­tu­tion were well-de­served (it was built when New­found­land’s sec­ond prime min­is­ter, a fella named John Kent, was in power, a few years af­ter we achieved Re­spon­si­ble Gov­ern­ment, and around the time the Amer­i­cans were gear­ing up to start killing each other dur­ing their Civil War; the doors opened in 1859, in case you were won­der­ing).

But I al­ways knew I would be leav­ing at the end of the jour­nal­is­tic as­sign­ment, that those cold shiv­ers that had started the minute I had en­tered the Pen and its doors had been nois­ily shut would sub­side once I had re­turned to the out­side world, to a nor­mal en­vi­ron­ment.

And those be­fore-men­tioned night­mares of be­ing locked up in the Pen have al­ways ended, as well, with the com­fort­ing re­al­iza­tion that what I had ex­pe­ri­enced was just that, a night­mare; that I’d wo­ken up, safely tucked away in my warm bed in Fla­trock.

It’s a liv­ing night­mare, though, for those men who’ve bro­ken the law, been caught and sen­tenced to time in an in­sti­tu­tion that should ex­ist only in pho­to­graphs at The Rooms or in one of Paul Sparkes’ en­gag­ing Time Cap­sules col­umns.

And it’s cer­tainly no treat for the staff to work in those cen­tury- and- a- half- old sur­round­ings as they slog through some­times ten­sion-filled shifts for 10, 20 and 30 years.

Now, no one has ever la­belled me a so­cial ac­tivist flag-wa­ver, and I’m not part of any move­ment that would suggest those who break the law should be cod­dled, that their ac­com­mo­da­tions should be just a shade be­low those that ex­isted in the old Ho­tel New­found­land (or per­haps the Wel­come Ho­tel).

And pun­ish­ment is not a dirty word in my books.

Surely, though, we’ve long ago rec­og­nized as a so­ci­ety — or should have rec­og­nized — that re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion, or an at­tempt at re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion, is a crit­i­cal com­po­nent of any in­car­cer­a­tion, and that it ben­e­fits all of us in the long run.

Even the worst kind of repro­bates who wind up in prison in New­found­land de­serve at least a half- de­cent, mod­ern build­ing in which to serve their sen­tences, and fa­cil­i­ties that will give them a shot at stay­ing half sane, and coun­selling that might al­low them to re­main on the straight and nar­row once re­leased.

As to whether a new prison would cut down on the es­ca­lat­ing num­ber of vi­o­lent in­ci­dents in the Pen in re­cent years, I’m not quite sure if those at­tacks and ri­ots we’ve seen are di­rectly re­lated to the de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of the fa­cil­ity.

The crimes in to­day’s St. John’s are of­ten vi­cious and deadly, quite dif­fer­ent from what we wit­nessed 25 and 30 years ago, and it only stands to rea­son that the kind of vi­o­lence in­side the prison would re­flect what is oc­cur­ring out­side the pen­i­ten­tiary walls.

Nev­er­the­less, a new prison couldn’t hurt.

And, be­sides, it’s what a nor­mal, ci­vil­ity- in­clined so­ci­ety would want, and should de­mand.

For now, though, the night­mare con­tin­ues, haunted by bro­ken po­lit­i­cal prom­ises.

Pass me my sleep­ing pills, sweet­heart.

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