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Poor conditions at notorious Newfoundland jail prompt judge to cut inmate's time

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

A Newfoundland judge reduced an inmate's time in jail after ruling that "harsh conditions" inside a notorious St. John's facility during the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the offender's mental and physical health issues.

The written decision released Wednesday from provincial Supreme Court Justice Glen Noel grants 27-year-old Jonathan Slade six months off his four-year sentence for crimes including robbery and breach of probation.

Noel said Slade experienced "unusual restrictions and increased confinement, lack of access to programming, and no or limited access to physical exercise or recreation time," as a result of his incarceration during the COVID-19 pandemic. He said Slade's mental and physical health conditions made him particularly vulnerable.

"Although these measures were intended to protect inmates from COVID-19 infection, their unintended consequence was a negative impact on the mental health, physical health, and rehabilitation of inmates, especially so for those predisposed by pre-existing conditions, as is Mr. Slade," he wrote.

Slade was at Her Majesty's Penitentiary on remand, awaiting sentencing for crimes including two robberies and two breaches of probation, for which he had pleaded guilty. He had been in custody since Sept. 30, 2020.

Noel sentenced him on June 30 to four years, minus six months for the "particularly harsh pre-sentence incarceration conditions" he endured at the jail. He was also given credit for the time he spent in remand, leaving him with about 19 months left to serve.

The oldest part of Her Majesty's Penitentiary was built in 1865, and its crumbling infrastructure has been underlined in several reports investigating the dismal conditions inside. Noel's decision includes an entire section devoted to Slade's descriptions of the "infestation" of rodents inside the facility's walls and ceilings.

"He describes that they run in the open and have lost their fear of humans, entering the beds even when occupied," Noel wrote. "Inmates resort to hanging their food from the ceiling while they sleep. Inmates experience rodent droppings in their stored food and personal belongings."

The judge said Slade suffered from a range of mental health issues, but pandemic-related health restrictions halted access to many services. Slade had seen a psychologist just five times in the 20 months he was at the jail, Noel said.

The decision says Slade also spent time in segregation, sometimes because he'd acted out in frustration and other times because he was suicidal.

"His outbursts were not always recognized as mental-health related," Noel said. "During these periods of isolation, whether medical or administrative segregation, (Slade) describes being locked in a cell by himself 22 hours per day, and he experienced increased anxiety and panic."

Slade also has physical disabilities and injuries that have left him with mobility issues and chronic pain, the judge wrote. His injuries left him incontinent and he needs to use protective undergarments.

He was housed for a time in an older part of the jail where there aren't any common areas or spots for recreation, nor is their enough privacy to use the undergarments discreetly, Noel said.

"He became the target of ridicule from other inmates, and even at times, the guards," the judge wrote. "I find this would have had a particular profound effect on Mr. Slade's mental health struggles."

Noel outlined several other court cases in which inmates have said they faced unusually harsh conditions at Her Majesty's Penitentiary.

The provincial government has long promised to replace the jail, and officials said in November they had chosen a company to submit a proposal for a new 276-bed facility by the end of this year.

In an emailed statement Thursday, a Justice Department spokeswoman said the office consistently reviews its own corrections policies as well as those from across the country.

"There are well-known infrastructure issues that present a challenge," Lesley Clarke said of the jail, adding that construction on the new facility is expected to begin next spring.

"Since a Public Health Emergency was declared March 18, 2020, every effort has been made to prevent COVID-19 from entering our correctional facilities to keep inmates and staff safe," she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 7, 2022.

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