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Mould halts in-person visits at Newfoundland's notorious, rodent-infested jail

Her Majesty's Penitentiary, a minimum security penitentiary in St. John's, NL, overlooks Quidi Vidi Lake on June 9, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Daly Her Majesty's Penitentiary, a minimum security penitentiary in St. John's, NL, overlooks Quidi Vidi Lake on June 9, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Daly
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ST. JOHN'S, N.L. -

In-person visits have been cancelled at Newfoundland's crumbling, Dickens-era jail because of what inmates describe as an extensive spread of black mould.

The Canadian Press spoke with three inmates who said guards announced last week that the visiting room at Her Majesty's Penitentiary had been "condemned" because of the fungus. The closure comes as inmates and guards also cope with staff shortages, flooding, and rampant infestations of rodents.

"We're being traumatized while we're here, and there's nothing to help us," said inmate Jesse Lewis in a phone call from the St. John's jail.

Her Majesty's Penitentiary was first opened in 1859, the year Charles Dickens's "A Tale of Two Cities" was published. The original stone building has been renovated and extensions have been added to it, but the facility is still woefully outdated.

Lewis said inmates are often woken up at night by the screams of their peers who find rodents in their beds. The guards are tormented too, he said.

"A guard said last night that when he was typing on the computer, sometimes they'll run over the keyboard," Lewis said. "There's that many of them … it's not fit."

An inmate was bitten by a rodent and treated with antibiotics, according to a ruling last year by provincial court Judge Jacqueline Brazil.

Critics say Her Majesty's Penitentiary should have closed long ago, and provincial governments have been promising to replace it since at least 2014. The province said last July it had hired a company to begin clearing land at a new site.

The provincial Justice Department confirmed Tuesday afternoon that in-person visits had been "temporarily suspended" at the jail, but it said planning was underway to allow virtual visits.

"We acknowledge the infrastructure challenges at the facility; however, maintenance issues are addressed as they arise," said an email from spokesperson Eric Humber. "The (department) takes the responsibility of having inmates in our care very seriously."

Lewis said the cancellation of in-person visits means he won't see his grandparents, who drive nearly 70 kilometres from the community of Avondale to see him. But he said that many visits -- both in-person and virtual -- had been routinely cancelled anyway because of guard shortages.

Sometimes, his grandparents would make the drive only to be told when they arrived that the visit couldn't go ahead, he said. Staff shortages have also led to regular cancellations of mental health and addictions programs, Lewis said, adding that people are leaving the jail in worse states of mental health than when they arrived.

"You'd be charged for putting an animal in something like this," he said. "They're warehousing us. They're not rehabilitating us in any way, shape or form."

Newfoundland and Labrador has the highest rate of inmate suicide by jail capacity in Atlantic Canada, according to government figures. Between 2010 and 2020, five inmates died by suicide in the province's jail system, which has 281 beds. By comparison, five people died by suicide over the same period in Nova Scotia jails, which have a total inmate capacity of about 700.

The provincial Justice Department says it was notified about an inmate death at Her Majesty's Penitentiary on Aug. 22 but has released no details about the identity of the inmate or the cause of death. A department spokesperson said last week that the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary and the office of the chief medical examiner were investigating.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 4, 2023.

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