Hellish Me­dieval Prim­i­tive

Early prison life in St. John’s was as hard as the stone Her Majesty’s Pen­i­ten­tiary was built from

The Telegram (St. John’s) - - FRONT PAGE - BY GLEN WHIFFEN

Since its be­gin­nings in 1859, work­ing and liv­ing con­di­tions at Her Majesty’s Pen­i­ten­tiary in St. John’s have of­ten been the sub­ject of com­plaint and protest.

And though politi­cians ac­knowl­edge it has out­lived its use­ful life, when it comes to talk of re­plac­ing the fa­cil­ity, it never seems to make its way to the top of pro­vin­cial or fed­eral gov­ern­ment spend­ing lists.

In to­day’s Tele­gram, and con­tin­u­ing next week, we present a series ex­plor­ing the past, present and fu­ture of HMP.

If you iso­late the orig­i­nal three-storey stone building on the grounds of Her Majesty’s Pen­i­ten­tiary in St. John’s to­day and com­pare it in black and white to an archived im­age closer to the time it was first opened in 1859, the ex­te­rior of the building doesn’t look all that much dif­fer­ent.

The old smoke stacks that rose from the roof peak ne­ces­si­tated by early wood fur­naces are gone, some of the Vic­to­rian-era rounded win­dow open­ings have been stoned shut, and air vents have been changed. But, in a side-by-side of black and white photos, you’d have to take a close look to de­ter­mine which photo is the archived one.

It’s not that things haven’t changed at Her Majesty’s Pen­i­ten­tiary over the years since back in the day when it was meant to be stark, se­vere and for­bid­ding.

In fact, the in­side of that stone building known as Cen­tre Block is com­pletely dif­fer­ent now though var­i­ous rounds of ren­o­va­tions. The first pris­oner who en­tered through the door would not rec­og­nize it. wings that were added in the mid-1940s and early 1980s.

In his book “In­side the Walls, A History of Her Majesty’s Pen­i­ten­tiary” by for­mer cor­rec­tional of­fi­cer David Har­vey, he says the stone building is one of the old­est build­ings in St. John’s, and among the old­est stone struc­tures in the prov­ince.

“The building dates from a time when pris­on­ers’ rights and fair treat­ment were not pub­lic pol­icy, when pris­on­ers were not seg­re­gated on the ba­sis of age or gen­der, and no treat­ment or re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion pro­grams were pro­vided,” he writes. “Pris­on­ers were in­stead sub­ject to iso­la­tion and hard labour.”

Over the past two or three decades, talk and de­bate about the need for a new prison in the prov­ince to re­place Her Majesty’s Pen­i­ten­tiary has raised its head from time to time.

The fa­cil­ity is not only old, but its di­lap­i­dated con­di­tions and choppy de­sign make it un­suit­able for the re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion, treat­ment and train­ing pro­grams ex­pected for pris­on­ers in to­day’s world.

And with a re­cent rash of sud­den deaths, in­clud­ing sui­cides by in­mates in the prov­ince’s cor­rec­tional fa­cil­i­ties, the is­sue of re­vamp­ing the cor­rec­tional sys­tem and re­plac­ing fa­cil­i­ties such as Her Majesty’s Pen­i­ten­tiary have nearly reached a cri­sis point.

In a 2008 report for the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment called “Decades of Dark­ness, Mov­ing To­ward the Light,” it stated that the en­tire pro­vin­cial prison sys­tem in New­found­land and Labrador has been un­der-re­sourced and in need of up­grad­ing for sev­eral decades.

It noted the prison was in de­plorable con­di­tion and has out­lived its life ex­pectancy.

The prison has a ca­pac­ity to house up to 175 in­mates but it has of­ten housed a num­ber well be­yond that. Both sen­tenced and non-sen­tenced (re­mand) of­fend­ers are kept in the prison, who are pro­vin­cial and fed­eral in­mates, and there is a seg­re­ga­tion unit and a spe­cial han­dling unit.

Calls for re­form

Ac­cord­ing to The Rooms Archival Mo­ments writ­ten by ar­chiv­ist Larry Do­hey, con­cern about re­form­ing the fa­cil­ity dates back to the late 1800s. On June 1890, a per­son wrote to what was then The Evening Tele­gram sug­gest­ing that when a per­son is con­victed and im­pris­oned at the prison, that per­son ba­si­cally drives their fam­ily into poverty.

“The only rem­edy for this ap­pears to be that a va­ri­ety of in­dus­tries should be estab­lished in the pen­i­ten­tiary; that ev­ery per­son im­pris­oned should be obliged to la­bor at some in­dus­try; and that his earn­ings should be ap­plied to the sup­port of his fam­ily, where such sup­port is needed. In this way, all law-break­ers would be grad­u­ally de­prived of pub­lic pity, the re­spect for the law would grow stronger in the whole com­mu­nity; and the law, be­ing backed up by pub­lic opin­ion, would gain a stronger hold upon the con­science of ev­ery in­di­vid­ual in the com­mu­nity.

“In this way, too, ev­ery per­son im­pris­oned would learn some trade (more or less per­fectly, ac­cord­ing to the length of his term, and the na­ture of the in­dus­try); ev­ery such per­son would prob­a­bly ac­quire habits of in­dus­try; and thus there would be greater se­cu­rity against a re­lapse into evil ways af­ter dis­charge from the prison.”

Un­til the early 1900s, prison work crews could be seen about the city work­ing on pub­lic build­ings and their grounds. In fact, the trade of broom-mak­ing caught on at the prison, as most of the brooms found in New­found­land house­holds were at one time made by the pris­on­ers of the pen­i­ten­tiary.

When the First World War broke out in 1914, cer­tain crew­men of for­eign ships in the har­bour from en­emy coun­tries were held at Her Majesty’s Pen­i­ten­tiary as pris­on­ers of war.

An Evening Tele­gram story on Aug. 21, 1914 stated that “Ow­ing to com­plaints be­ing made that the po­lice sta­tion was un­fit to quar­ter pris­on­ers of war, yes­ter­day after­noon two Ger­mans and a Pole were re­moved from there to the pen­i­ten­tiary where they will be al­lowed a cer­tain amount of lib­erty.”

In the early 1930s, ac­cord­ing Har­vey’s book, over­crowd­ing at the pen­i­ten­tiary be­came a prob­lem due to trou­bled eco­nomic times. In March and April 1941 there were sev­eral ri­ots.

Har­vey ref­er­ences an Evening Tele­gram ar­ti­cle that re­ported the pris­on­ers in­volved “cried out against ju­ve­niles be­ing sent to the pen­i­ten­tiary.”

Ri­ots, hostage tak­ings and labour dis­putes at HMP have been highly re­ported in the lo­cal news me­dia over the past few decades.

In­fa­mous ‘guests’ of HMP

Some of the high-pro­file pris­on­ers who were housed at Her Majesty’s Pen­i­ten­tiary:

• In­mate James Briskett, who was work­ing out­side on the prison grounds dur­ing Re­gatta Day 1855, ran and at­tempted to rescue a crew from an over­turned boat.

• Phil Brady, who broke out of the prison in 1906.

• Wo Fen Game, hanged at Her Majesty’s Pen­i­ten­tiary for a triple mur­der in the early 1900s.

• Pol­ish artist Alexan­der Pindikowski, who would end up while in­car­cer­ated paint­ing the ceil­ings in the state­rooms at Gov­ern­ment House and Colo­nial Building.

• Well-known St. John’s tough guy Jim Rob­bins in the 1950s.

• Mafia king­pin Vito Riz­zuto.

• Self-style con­ser­va­tion­ist Paul Wat­son.

• Dan­ger­ous of­fend­ers Mike New­man and David Flem­ing.

• Nel­son Hart, who had been ac­cused of drowning his young twin daugh­ters and was later caught up in a “Mr. Big” sting (which was later dis­cred­ited).

• Kenny Green — the target of an at­tack by other in­mates in the chapel riot.


There’s not much dif­fer­ence in the sec­tion of Her Majesty’s Pen­i­ten­tiary built in 1859 in the archival photo and a re­cent shot.

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