ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - Newfoundland and Labrador's justice minister says he's as worried as jail guards and inmate advocates that the next violent uproar at Her Majesty's Penitentiary in St. John's will be deadly.
"It's something that we're very concerned about," Terry French said. "Our goal is to build the new facility, which is long overdue, and which is something that we're headed towards.
"We'll have it as soon as we possibly can."
The original stone structure of the Victorian-era jail dates back to 1859. There have been additions and major renovations over the years. But French readily concedes frontline staff are trying to manage increasingly volatile, drug-fuelled conflicts in an outmoded labyrinth.
"I'm amazed sometimes at how they do it. They work in challenging circumstances, I can assure you."
There were 145 inmates earlier this week, some of them double-bunked, in a prison designed for a maximum of 175. Population numbers have at times reached well over capacity.
French said there have been at least four major incidents in the last 18 months. They include a riot last month that trashed a living unit, causing tens of thousands of dollars in damages. Twelve inmates now face related charges.
"It's nearly impossible to eliminate these kinds of risks in correctional facilities," French said. "We do everything in our power to prevent them."
In February, a bloody brawl in the chapel involved the attempted ambush of one inmate by several others.
Guards held a public protest later that month over staffing levels, safety and increasing concerns about gang-related clashes.
The province announced in March new metal detectors and that corrections officers will be armed with pepper spray. It has also said it will build a new prison after years of fruitless haggling with the federal government for funding.
Her Majesty's Penitentiary houses some federal inmates serving sentences of two years or more in a deal with Ottawa dating back to when the province joined Confederation in 1949.
French said an architectural firm is now drafting a design plan and location recommendation for a new building. Next steps should be decided by late summer or fall but there's no timeline or price tag yet for construction, he said.
"This is certainly a top priority."
Volatility, aggression and stress have reached new heights at the penitentiary, said Carol Furlong, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees. The union represents about 300 correctional workers at Her Majesty's Penitentiary.
"I think it speaks to some of the issues that we're dealing with in our own society."
More illicit drug use and gang-style crime have come with offshore oil wealth over the last decade, Furlong said.
"We're hoping that once a new facility is built there will be some ability to move people into separate quarters and to be able to monitor people in a far more safe manner."
A new jail won't eliminate those problems but could ease them, she added. Many of those who work at Her Majesty's Penitentiary "have grave concerns about their safety," Furlong said.
Temperatures can't be readily adjusted on main cell blocks despite air conditioning and ventilation upgrades, she said.
"And of course when people get agitated because they're hot, that doesn't help in that kind of an environment."
Furlong credits the province for finally starting plans for a new building but said the union wants to see steady progress with design input from workers.
St. John's defence lawyer Bob Simmonds has raised concerns about everything from air quality to basic cleanliness at Her Majesty's Penitentiary for years.
"You take people that have anti-social problems (and) you put them in a facility that is completely antiquated," he said. "It should be bulldozed."
Simmonds has a ready answer for those who say public money shouldn't finance "hotels" for convicts.
Warehousing inmates in what he calls "an old dump" isn't the best way to rehabilitate and curb reoffence rates, he said.
"You cannot improve an institution that was built in the late 1800s. One of these days they're going to have a very, very bad incident where someone is killed."
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