ST. JOHN’S, N.L. – Plans to move female prisoners into a separate unit at a men’s penitentiary are a “less than ideal” fix for overcrowding, says an inmate advocate.
“Housing women and men in the same institution is less than what we call best practice,” said Cindy Murphy, executive director of the John Howard Society of Newfoundland and Labrador.
“We’re very hopeful that some other solutions will be put on the table in the near future.”
Justice Minister Andrew Parsons announced Tuesday that a fully self-contained unit at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary (HMP) in St. John’s is being renovated to house about 14 women starting later this month.
He said it’s a temporary move to deal with a “sharp increase” of inmates at the province’s only correctional centre for women in Clarenville.
Parsons said the jail, about 90 minutes northwest of St. John’s, had 10 inmates more than its capacity of 26 over the last month.
Several more women are at the St. John’s Lockup, a short-term holding unit.
“This puts a significant strain on the inmates and the staff,” Parsons said in a statement. “Renovations are being made to the intermittent unit at HMP to ensure there is absolutely no interaction between male and female inmates, and we are also working to ensure that staffing requirements are met.
“I stress that this is a temporary measure and women will only stay at HMP when it is absolutely necessary.”
Murphy said the John Howard Society agreed to support the plan as there was no other option, but was given no timeline for a permanent solution.
More women are winding up behind bars as they commit crimes to support alcohol and narcotics addictions, she said Tuesday in an interview.
“There seems to be an increase in the amount of substance abuse among the female population.”
The province has repeatedly called on Ottawa to help it replace Her Majesty’s Penitentiary.
The original stone structure of the Victorian-era jail dates back to 1859. There have been additions and major renovations over the years, but successive justice ministers have said staff are trying to manage increasingly volatile, drug-fuelled conflicts in an outdated building that only adds to tensions.
In 2014, rioters trashed a living unit and caused tens of thousands of dollars in damages.
The penitentiary was designed for a maximum of 175 men, but daily counts have at times reached well over capacity.
Parsons said female inmates are to have access to their own showers, washrooms, kitchenette, common room and outdoor recreation area.
Both the John Howard Society and the Provincial Advisory Council on the Status of Women “recognized the need for this action and provided valuable input,” he said.