ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — The sweltering heat at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary (HMP) is nothing new for correctional staff, some of whom have spent decades working in the facility without decent air conditioning and in heavy Kevlar vests, to boot.
“Hot as Hades,” one former worker described it, and that was during summers when temperatures outside hadn’t reached the record-breaking heights they have in the past week.
A Victorian-era facility, no air conditioning, closed windows, hefty uniforms, long shifts and a crowded space with inmates with complex needs makes for a tense workplace when the temperature increases, correctional officers past and present tell SaltWire Network.
“Unbearable is not the word,” one said. “Someone is going to get heatstroke one of these days, guaranteed.”
A number of inmates spoke to SaltWire Network earlier this week, describing feeling like “a dog in a car with the windows up,” being unable to breathe and sleeping on the floor in an effort to cool down. Some areas of the prison are worse than others, they say, and the bad ones feel suffocating.
It goes beyond an uncomfortable situation, many criminal defence lawyers have argued in court over the years — conditions at HMP, including the air quality and lack of air conditioning, constitute a violation of human rights at the best of times. The union representing correctional staff working in the prison says it’s a potential workplace health and safety issue, too.
“We’re hearing the heat on some of the ranges is absolutely brutal, to quote the term used by some of the officers, and that’s contributing to tension,” said Jerry Earle, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees (NAPE). “I’ve heard that they’ve had two call-ups of a specialized unit there because of inmates refusing to go back into their cells. This is a facility that’s unfit for a human being to be in, both inmates and staff.”
Due to short-staffing, officers are sometimes working back-to-back 12-hour shifts, Earle said, with no reprieve from the heat.
The prison, which opened in 1859, is well-known for its outdated and crumbling infrastructure that has, numerous times, resulted in offenders receiving extra credit on their jail sentences due to cruel and unusual punishment. The courts and members of the media often hear from inmates speaking about plumbing issues, rodent infestations, little recreation time, lack of mental-health programming and poor air quality, and these were among the issues addressed in a review of the prison system mandated by the provincial government in 2008. The province announced in 2019 the construction of a new 276-bed facility to replace HMP, with work planned to begin in the spring of 2023 and last approximately three years.
Earle said as far as he’s heard, things are on track to follow that timeline. He said he hopes so, anyway. The union has undertaken some work in terms of creating an outline of what the new prison should include to best serve its members working there.
“That facility cannot come soon enough and I hope that government does not, in any way, shape or form, try to delay it,” Earle said. “It should have been started long ago.”
A spokeswoman for the province’s Department of Justice and Public Safety indicated on Monday she was working on SaltWire Network’s request for comment on the situation at HMP, but no response has yet been provided.
Earle — who said NAPE members working in some of the province’s older health-care facilities are also suffering long shifts with no air-conditioning — said HMP staff have been providing inmates with extra bottles of cold water and containers of ice. He’s heard the province has engaged a contractor to clean the facility’s air ducts and do some minor work.
“What we’re being told is it’s making barely any difference whatsoever,” he said.
“Something has to be done for the staff there and the inmates, too. It’s a pressure-cooker environment. It can get pretty volatile, pretty quick.”