(Canadian OH&S News) — Union members working at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary (HMP) in St. John’s, N.L. held a public demonstration at the prison beginning at noon on Nov. 13, to protest the allegedly unsafe working conditions of the facility.
Organized by the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees (NAPE), the demonstration also included correctional officers from prisons elsewhere in the province. The intention was to express concerns about the increasing levels of violence at the facility and the management’s inadequate response to past complaints.
“It’s unbelievable, the stories that I’ve heard, the things that I’ve seen. There’s no way to describe it, certain sections of that facility,” said NAPE president Jerry Earle, adding that he had visited HMP to meet with the staff while campaigning for the union presidency earlier this year. “I was really taken aback by the facility in which they had to work. I can’t imagine being there to work 12-hour shifts, or even eight-hour shifts.”
Earle explained that one of the key issues with HMP was its crumbling infrastructure due to its age.
“There are certain parts of this facility that are close to 150 years old,” he said. “The facility absolutely needs to be replaced. I don’t think there’s anybody that would dispute that.
“Unfortunately,” Earle continued, “it’s not one of the facilities that will get all kinds of public support, like a healthcare facility or school.” As a result, “it keeps getting put on the back burner.”
Although the building and work environment have a number of health and safety issues for correctional officers, management has been mostly unresponsive for a long time. “The management there has taken a hard-nosed approach when we came in with a couple of ultimatums regarding the work environment,” said Earle, elaborating that management personnel “have taken one approach and really not listened to what the frontline workers have said.
“That was really the breaking point.”
Protesters at the demonstration held signs calling for the resignation of Owen Brophy, the province’s superintendant of corrections. Former Justice and Public Safety Minister Judy Manning appointed Brophy to the post in December.
But a Nov. 16 press statement from the Newfoundland and Labrador Department of Justice called Brophy “eminently qualified for this current role” and “a strong advocate for improvements to policies and procedures at HMP.
“He is dedicated to ensuring the facility is as safe as possible,” the statement added.
Earle cited an Oct. 2008 government report, Decades of Darkness: Moving towards the light, which evaluated the prison system in Newfoundland and Labrador. Authored by Simonne Poirier, who was the chairperson of the review panel for adult corrections in the province, the 230-page review offered a number of recommendations to improve working conditions at HMP.
“There were all kinds of recommendations in that report. Some have been acted on, but the key ones have not been,” said Earle. “It’s just continuous. We’re getting all the promises, but no hard, fast resolutions or anything.
“It’s just band-aid solutions.”