Newfoundland 5.2:  HM Penitentiary, St Johns

Before coming to Newfoundland, I had a quick look to see if there were any prison museums to visit.  The only one I could find was in St Johns and was a collection assembled by a retired prison officer, Captain David Harvey.  I arrived determined to find this man.  I asked at the University, a couple of tourist spots and then a taxi driver who suggested I knock on the prison door.  This seemed a long shot… It worked!  I explained the reason for my interest and my experience in prison work, and they put me in touch with him and we met at the prison on Monday evening.

Luckily he was a friendly sort and didn’t mind the hundreds of questions I threw at him.  There were many similarities with Dartmoor, as you would expect regarding prisoner behaviour, security issues and the balance between officers and civilian staff with slightly different aims.  There were also many differences that I was surprised at.  I think that, overall, they seem to be ahead of us with some ideas that we have recently begun implementing, having been in place here for some time.

  • What do they (prisoners) wear?  They used to wear khaki, then it was own clothes which families would drop off for them – this had obvious problems such as contraband and bullying, now they wear prison issue orange jumpsuits. 
  • What jobs do they have?  The have similar jobs in the kitchen and carpentry. They don’t get paid for jobs they do, families give them money to go in their prison account for anything they need.
  • What do they do all day? TV? They have a library and a communal TV on the wing.  They do not have TVs in their cells at this jail.  There is also a prison gym.
  • Are the prisoners separated into main and vulnerable location?  They are to a certain extent.  They tried to integrate them, but this had its obvious difficulties.
  • When did they stop the smoking? Around ten years ago.  The whole jail is scent free, so no joss sticks or scents of any kind.  No tobacco can enter the building.  He said this was accepted and adapted to really well by prisoners.
  • Are the doors just bars?  Some are.  The ones in the older buildings constructed in the 1940s are just bars.  The toilets are opposite the doors.  I was surprised at this, but heard they sometimes put blankets up for privacy, although not technically supposed to.  The doors in the newer bits constructed in the 80s have the solid doors with a window.
  • Do they have grass in the exercise yard? Yup.
  • How many prisoners does it hold? Around 170 men in mostly single cells, with a few doubles in the 1980s ‘new’ bit.
  • I learned that they have electric doors.
  • They have rubber tooth brushes to stop shanks being made – this amazed me!  Fantastic.  Why don’t we have rubber toothbrushes in our prisons?! Genius solution.
  • The landings don’t have netting to catch anyone who jumps or falls, or is thrown, they have chain link fence around the edges so you can’t climb over.
  • They only installed toilets in some cells in the 80s.  Prior to this some still had no plumbing, so would have buckets for the toilet and a jug of water to drinking and washing.
  • The prison is different to most other prisons in Canada because there is no Federal prison to house those sentenced to over 2 years, so they do mix remand with those serving over two years.  Those with significant sentences would be sent to the nearest Federal prison in New Brunswick.  This would be an 8 hour ferry ride or a flight for families to visit.
  • The drug culture is a little different as illicit use is more about prescription drugs such as OxyContin, which is also a big problem with abuse in the community in Toronto.
  • The prison was designed similarly to Pentonville in England and Dave said he recognised similarities she he visited London – nice to meet another person who uses their holidays to look at prisons!
  • The beds in the 5 cells in the segregation area are concrete, built in.
  • Officer rankings are very different and they use the same ranks as the police – Superintendant, Captain etc and Correctional Officer instead of Governors as we have.
  • All visits are closed, so there is a screen between prisoners and their families at all times.

Dave has made a really great collection under the prison administration building that he keeps adding to and working on.  There are prison made tattoo guns, an old needle from years ago that was found with a syringe made from an old tube, there are trainers with the heel hollowed out to hold pills from when they did wear their own clothes, lots of old record books and pictures of the changing inside of the prison through the years.  There are display cabinets and labels with items in cabinets and on the walls.  Clearly, a lot of time and work has gone into it and it was inspiring to see that his personal interest has gone to such good use.   He wrote a book called ‘Inside the Walls’ that I rushed out and bought, so I can continue reading even more about it.  

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