Last month, 33-year-old Mount Pearl, Nfld., resident Rick Bennett pushed aside a ceiling tile in the interview room where he was waiting for his lawyer, pulled himself up into the crawl space and briefly fled into the heavens above St. John’s provincial courthouse. Officers with the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary collared him once he collapsed through the ceiling near the judges’ chambers, then dragged him from the building—but not before he’d forced the courthouse’s evacuation, the deployment of the K-9 unit and, perhaps most worrying, an asbestos assessment of the area disturbed by his escape.
Bennett’s illicit exit was just the latest in a string of escapes and corrections slip-ups that highlight the sorry state of Newfoundland and Labrador’s prison system. Two years after a damning independent report noted the decrepit facilities and lack of security—including cell doors that couldn’t lock and 19th-century jails—the escapes raise the question of just how ready Newfoundland is to implement the federal Conservatives’ plans to expand the country’s jails.
The recent breakouts are a curious mix of Escape From Alcatraz romance and pathetic slapstick. Earlier in September, Timothy Gunn and Timothy Gunn jimmied a bathroom window at West Coast Correctional Centre in Stephenville, dug a passage under an outside fence, then wriggled free. They were ultimately recovered by police—two days later and halfway across the island. Days earlier, Andrew Parsons, a 35-year-old in custody at the RCMP lock-up in Marystown, on Newfoundland’s southern tip, asked his jailers for a new mattress, then overpowered a civilian keeper when he delivered it unaccompanied by an officer. Parsons fled to a waiting vehicle and the Ontario woman who’d travelled to the province and rented the getaway car. Police later arrested him nearby after a foot chase (the woman has been sentenced to seven days in custody and a year’s probation).
Then there’s Manuel Clark, 34, who was serving time for shoplifting in August when corrections officers delivered him from Her Majesty’s Penitentiary in St. John’s to the sheriff’s office for a bail hearing related to a sexual assault charge. When the sheriffs discovered a scheduling error, they released Clark—despite his protestations he still belonged in custody. “The guy just walked home!” complains Kelvin Parsons, the Liberal justice critic.
Justice Minister Felix Collins sees no pattern to all this: “Each one of these things are completely different, unique situations.” But it’s hard to ignore their similarities with the descriptions of Newfoundland’s prisons in “Decades of Darkness: Moving Towards the Light,” a 2008 review that found its correctional facilities and holding cells a mess—including staff shortages, aging infrastructure and shockingly lax security. Her Majesty’s Penitentiary boasts a block dating back to 1849; Parsons compares imprisoning inmates there to “taking people from the 21st century and putting them into the 19th century.”
Newfoundland is the only province without a federal pen—Her Majesty’s is a provincial institution that takes in federal inmates—and Ottawa has long promised help building a new facility. That help has yet to arrive, despite a new emphasis on long prison terms under the Harper Tories. Touring Her Majesty’s some years ago, then-public safety minister Stockwell Day ruefully called its interior “one of the greatest disincentives for anyone to want to commit a crime—because that is not a place you would want to go to.”