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