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The Bar of T. -NL accuses province of violating inmates' rights

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Her Majesty's Penitentiary, Saint-Jean, was built in 1859. (Archive photo)

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The Law Society of Newfoundland and Labrador is accusing the provincial Department of Justice of violating the rights of inmates at Her Majesty's Penitentiary in Saint John. It is said to be so short-staffed that lawyers often do not have access to their clients.

In a letter, dated December 15, 2023, obtained by NDP, Law Society of Newfoundland and Labrador implores province to address corrections officer shortage.

It is written that lawyers are often unable to see their clients because there are not enough agents to accommodate visitors. Additionally, detainees are often unable to appear in court in person, because there is no one to transport them.

According to the Charter rights and freedoms, everyone has the right to have immediate recourse to the assistance of a lawyer.

The bar recalls that when detainees do not have access to their legal advisor, they do not participate fully in their legal proceedings, which represents a violation of their fundamental rights.

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The provincial bar has recorded multiple cases where lawyers had to turn around when arriving at Her Majesty's Penitentiary or in court without being able to speak to their client, because the latter was unable to attend the hearing.

The NDP also obtained a copy of the reply from the Minister of Justice, John Hogan, who wrote to the bar two weeks later, just before Christmas .

John Hogan recalls the ongoing recruitment efforts by the provincial government, which he believes are bearing fruit.

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John Hogan is Minister of Justice of Newfoundland and Labrador. (Archive photo)

In his letter, we read that provincially, 25 new correctional officers have been hired as well as 23 other recruits who are currently undergoing training.

These workers will be assigned to Her Majesty's Penitentiary, but also to other correctional facilities in the province.

In a statement Monday, the minister said there were, in fact, 65 new hires. However, it does not specify the period during which these hirings took place or whether these people are still working within the correctional system.

John Hogan did not did not want to grant an interview.

For his part, the president of the Newfoundland Public and Private Employees Association (NAPE) which represents correctional officers, Jerry Earle, says there were 30 vacant positions at Her Majesty's Penitentiary in 2023.

This is not the first controversy to hit Her Majesty's Penitentiary, where conditions for inmates and correctional officers are exposed finger.

Last year, CBC reported that inmates were being bitten by rats. Several cells were also without running water, or without a functioning toilet or sink for months.

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Her Majesty's Penitentiary, St. John's, Newfoundland. (File photo)

In addition, the Victorian prison built in the 1850s is not well ventilated. In summer, the heat is unbearable for both inmates and correctional officers.

The situation means that the recruitment of new correctional officers becomes more and more difficult.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, successive governments have promised to close Her Majesty's Penitentiary and build a new prison.

For years, budgets have been announced for planning new prison infrastructure and in 2019, the Liberal government announced a construction project.

The bill was initially $200 million, but construction costs skyrocketed, leading the government to put the project on hold.

If the province is indeed still promising a new prison, the fact remains that the work has not yet started.

Based on reporting by Patrick Butler and with information from Malone Mullin, CBC

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