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