A Glimpse Inside: A Day at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary

Advocates say a replacement for Her Majesty’s Penitentiary—dating to 1859—will improve safety for both inmates & officers. But how much longer can it wait?

The regular mental and physical injuries inside Her Majesty’s Penitentiary (HMP) in St. John’s are described paradoxically as both well known and unknown—harmful, and expected.

NAPE president Jerry Earle was on the VOCM morning show in November 2019, speaking to the experience of correctional officers (COs). Earle had been invited to respond to the death in custody of Jonathan Henoche (33). It was the fifth death of an inmate at a provincial correctional institution (with three of those being at HMP) in less than three years. Henoche’s death has since been ruled a homicide.

“Nobody in your listening audience can imagine what they (COs) have to face every single day in the workplace,” the union leader said.

There’s no need to imagine it. Readers are given an unprecedented look at HMP daily life through hundreds of CO reports, covering 2018 through April 2019, recently obtained under access to information law. They detail drug use and drug-seeking by inmates, mental health crises, threats of violence and common (averaging weekly at a minimum, with exact dates redacted) assaults.

Names, injury location, prison units and other details are blacked out, to protect the identities of individuals involved.

The reality inside is: plastic baggies covered in feces, and slip and falls suspected to be otherwise—severe enough to require hospitalization. There’s head shots, pools of blood from self-inflicted cuts spotted on CCTV, and towels used to staunch wounds only to be rinsed in the shower by a CO and applied to a body again in the hopes of saving a life.

Page after page show incidents involving some of the nearly 170 inmates at HMP on weekdays. It rises to 190 on weekends, with the addition of men serving intermittent sentences. Also involved are the average 34 COs working weekday shifts, the 24 scheduled for weekends, and yet fewer working at night (per the 2018 “Deaths in Custody Review”).

Justice Minister Andrew Parsons said being shocked by the details would not mean one was entirely naïve. At the same time, he said, the reports don’t show all efforts in the system to reduce violence at HMP and avoid injury, and no correctional institution is without violence.

“I think if you did this for any correctional facility in any province or state with similar backgrounds you’d probably see a lot of the same things,” he told The Independent.

“The reality is you have a number of people put into a small space, many with various issues, and they’re contained, they’re being held against their will and there’s so much behind it.”

A Day in July

Take any month in the year covered by the CO reports—say, July—and read through.

One day, inmates end up in what is simply described as a “physical altercation” in a corridor.

Another day (possibly the same day as exact dates are redacted), while waiting for medication, a man turned and kicked a second. “He then proceeds to punch inmate (–) in the (–) and backs him into the corner of the lockers,” a CO reported.

In another case, a man jumped off a picnic table and punched another.

Another day, yelling escalated to pushing and fighting. “This led to (–) taking the range microwave and throwing it towards and hitting inmate (–),“ a CO reported. A file was opened with the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary and the file number is noted in the CO’s report in that case.

There are repeated attempts at medication hoarding, foiled by medical staff and officers. In the cells, discoveries of pills and powders, along with a bottle of bleach behind a bunk, a box of Tide, and tattooing supplies (a needle tip and piece of charcoal). There was a shank under a mattress, and what was believed to be a homemade noose.

There was an argument recorded where a man refused to bring a package into the prison at a future date. After the dispute, he approached the area control room and said he needed to get off the range.

COs recorded exceptional incidents verbal abuse, featuring persistent use of “bitch” and “cunt.” Another day it was: “I walk the same streets as you—just remember that.”

A man refused an X-ray on what was described as a suspected “self-inflicted, broken (-)” (the exact location on the body is redacted).

One man destroyed a unit fan. Another flushed a clock radio.

There was the day a CO noticed an inmate leaving their cell after lockdown and discovered what was presumably a defect. The cell door, the inmate reported, had simply slid open.

There was an intoxicated inmate with slurred speech and glossy eyes, and another who spit up blood on his mattress. Another yelled at other people while spitting over the floors and walls of his cell.

A man in segregation stood on a sink and refused to come down.

A man approached an officer to talk about not feeling himself, and his intention to murder people, to commit mass murder. He spoke about a handgun and rifle he kept in working order on the outside, before thanking the officer for taking time to listen.

On a phone call, a distraught man was overheard telling his mother he’d be dead within days. He was asked about how he was feeling, but refused to speak to the CO.

A man was seen self-harming. “Inmate (–) was crouched down and had his (–) there was feces on the floor, a pool of blood, and (–) was covered in blood and (-). The whole time this writer was in on the unit, I was trying to talk to inmate (–) about what he was doing and trying to get him to stop numerous times but he would not comply or even respond to this writer,” read the report of a responding CO.

Officers donned Tyvek suits (chemical-resistant) before entering the cell. Using a shield, they pinned the man down and handcuffed him—before taking him to the showers to wash off feces and blood—as a medical evaluation was completed by a staff nurse. He was placed in a WRAP safety restraint, to avoid further, immediate self-harm.

A CO asked a hunger striker be checked out by a nurse, seeing them unsteady on their feet and becoming concerned. Another CO was assaulted when an inmate “struck me near my (–) and (–) with his hands,” according to the paperwork filed after the incident.

One CO reported being blamed for in-custody deaths. “No wonder why people are killing their selves,” an agitated charge had said to them. The inmate had been told a phone call would have to wait until after a count.

That month, no one died inside.

Punishing Assaults

There are regular reports of assault. One record began with what was later described as “a loud thud.” The corrections officer (CO) looked out of the control room to see one inmate standing over another.

The man on the ground had “obvious injuries,” it was reported, and he was taken to see the nurse. Reviewing CCTV footage, the officer replayed the moment. One man was at the phone and turned away from the second. “Inmate (–) then stood up from the phone and punched inmate (–) in the (–), causing him to fall against the control room window,” the officer stated.

It was on camera. There was an institutional charge filed under the Prisons Act and dealt with at a disciplinary court. However, the officer’s report gave no indication of a criminal assault charge (with its potential for public court hearing and far greater penalty)—what those familiar with Corrections might call a “street charge.”

The Department of Justice says all assaults recorded in the prison are reported to the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary (RNC), but that’s no guarantee a case will move forward.

“A lot of them, there’s no charges typically laid because the inmate doesn’t want to cooperate or provide a statement. Some of them do,” Minister Parsons explained when asked why there weren’t more criminal charges laid.

He said it’s an unfortunate reality and noted there are assaults outside of the prison setting where a charge may not be laid, if the individuals assaulted or those around them don’t want to go to the police or pursue charges.

“The good news (at HMP) if there’s any is at least it’s being recorded. (And) I do think there’s a lot of work that does not go reported, in terms of de-escalation and things that are done to avoid these situations,” he noted.

He mentioned programming and procedural changes under his tenure, and the ongoing transition of health service inside the prison from the silo of Justice to the Department of Health. He mentioned the re-introduction of electronic monitoring, bail supervision, and the introduction of specialty courts. This includes a new drug treatment court, directing people to care as opposed to institutionalization.

“(And) we’re trying to provide extra training to our officers. There’s always something new. I mean, having cultural sensitivity training was not something that I think was contemplated back in the Decades of Darkness review (2008). These are things we’re working on. Mental health awareness, mental health training. The amount of training that our officers get now is greater and better every year,” Parsons said.

A New Facility

Lawyer Bob Buckingham said specialty courts are recognizing there are people in the system who need care, and who might not be facing incarceration if they received it.

People working in correctional facilities in Newfoundland and Labrador, including medical staff, have estimated 77 per cent to 87 per cent of inmates have substance abuse issues, mental health issues, or both.

Buckingham said while diversion from the institutions is good, he remains critical of the environment inside HMP, where there will always be new inmates.

“There’s a dearth of understanding and responsibility respecting those issues. There’s a lack of legislative direction, policy and procedures with respect to assisting people and there’s an abysmal lack of training so that correctional officers understand the issues that inmates face,” he said.

Buckingham acknowledged he was outspoken with his criticisms after the death of his client, Henoche, who had yet to face trial. Henoche was accused of the murder of 88-year-old Regula Schule.

Buckingham wished more people would stop being silent on troubling experiences or situations inside. He said he’d like to see more signs of internal advocacy, showing assistant superintendents and superintendents pressing for what they believe is needed to help.

“A new facility would (help), but that’s only part of the issue,” he said.

“There still needs to be a lot of work done to deal with people’s issues, to develop and help with their conflict management. Even people without mental health or addictions problems… that type of assistance and work is important. That’s something that correctional officers may be able to help with, but more importantly social workers and psychologists can work through.”

Lawyer Mark Gruchy told The Independent he believes the day-to-day violence inside is worse than the public realizes. At the same time, the response is complex. For example, the prosecution of assaults.

“What I’ve witnessed over the years with respect to attempts to utilize the regular criminal justice system to essentially enforce order in prisons is they tend to run into scenarios where people do not want to be witnesses, and as a result the processes don’t succeed,” he said. “In fact, I can’t recall one of those processes truly succeeding when an individual was street charged for an assault in prison.”

A high-profile exception would be the so-called “chapel riot” of 2014. In that case, video was made public. In that case, inmate Kenny Green ultimately sued and was awarded $45,000 in damages.

Green reportedly asked the antiquated prison—dating to 1859—be closed.

That’s not likely to happen until there’s a replacement institution available. The Liberal government is pursuing a new build through a public-private partnership process. As reported this month by allNewfoundlandLabrador, KPMG and EY are competing to be named financial and procurement advisor, while final selection of the fairness advisor and technical advisor is also pending.

Gruchy says a new prison, if built with mental health and safety in mind, could make it easier to defuse tensions in a given unit. It helps the COs avoid meshing of incompatibles and provides space to offer new programming, to give people time away from their units and a chance to avoid the cabin fever and internal politics. It can hopefully lessen the use of solitary confinement as a means of protection from the drugs and violence.

“The only solution is a properly constructed facility that allows people to be moved about in a safe way,” he said.

But given past promises left unfulfilled, he is one of many who remain skeptical the new prison will begin construction as planned in 2022.

And like Buckingham, he warned of the pressures in the meantime leading to violence and a building an unfit environment. “If you don’t have a release valve for that pressure, that’s where the problems come from,” Gruchy noted.

In her “Deaths in Custody” report, Supt. Marlene Jesso (ret) stated the province should be looking at the interim period. Even under current timelines, a new facility is roughly five years away.

“While a new institution will include space to alleviate the need to use segregation to accommodate inmates experiencing a mental health crisis, a more therapeutic environment with enhanced services cannot wait for construction of a new facility,” Jesso wrote.

Jesso’s first recommendation was to see the Correctional Services Act enacted, updating the legislation and including legislation relevant not only to the internal disciplinary process but also complaint resolution and individual rights. The legislation was introduced in 2011 and passed by the House of Assembly, but never enacted. An updated version passed in the spring of 2019.

Parsons said work to enact the legislation continues and it is expected to be in place this spring.

The minister said he doesn’t take the experiences inside HMP lightly and work continues to improve on the status quo.

“I have no illusion though that if you get a new institution that the world will be perfect,” he concluded.

A Day in November

In November 2018, according to the CO reports, inmates were seen on surveillance passing packages, more than one “kite” (request). They were strong-arming for medication, caught cheeking meds or trying to hide them under their tongue, hoping to pull them out before they dissolve. During a transfer, a man was heard talking about how he couldn’t wait to get a package out of himself.

There were lockdowns and strip searches: marijuana, hash, yellow pills, orange pills, crushed powders in saran wrap. Drug tests found methadone in inmates who had no such prescription. They found THC.

During a cell search, an inmate proactively said he had Tylenol. He showed the CO a collection of eight to 10 pills before swallowing them all. He was placed on medical watch.

A man appeared to be injured and asked to be locked in his cell, refusing medical attention and saying he fell.

During a cell check, a CO saw an inmate was “beat up” and reviewed CCTV footage. He spotted a fight where an inmate was hitting another with a sock carrying an unknown weighted item. One or more of the inmates was seen “throwing punches.”

One man threw a microwave at a window; one launched a fan at the ground; one punched a wall. In yet another incident, an inmate tore his sink off the wall “and demolished it by beating it off the door until it was nonexistent.” COs followed up.

“He was sitting on his bed with his head in his hands, rocking back and forth,” a CO wrote.

A man on a top bunk was found chanting names like “Charlie Manson and the devil,” kicking at the ceiling before being transferred for medical observation.

In the special handling unit (SHU), a man threw food at the door, spit at the window and proceeded to tear mattress apart, to “bite at it removing the cover and throwing foam around his cell.”

Another man, visibly upset, asked for a nurse who had gone home for the day. He said he was “not in a good place in his head” and also didn’t feel safe.

It was just another month inside.

Photo by Josh Estey.

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