her majestys penitentiary

Her Majesty’s Penitentiary

Tucked away in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador sits Her Majesty’s Penitentiary (HMP), one of Canada’s oldest and most notorious prisons. First opened in 1859, the aging facility has a well-documented history of unrest, violence, and calls for reform. But what is life truly like inside HMP’s foreboding stone walls? This article takes a deep dive into the conditions and controversies surrounding this infamous correctional institution.

The Notorious Nature of HMP St. John’s

Physical Layout and Population

With thick granite walls enclosing towering turrets and barred windows, HMP cuts an imposing figure on the St. John’s skyline. The Victorian-era grounds hold multiple cell blocks, administrative offices, and common areas. HMP houses primarily male inmates both awaiting trial and post-conviction. The facility has a stated capacity of 175 inmates but hasfaced consistentissues with overcrowding and cramped living quarters.

A Legacy of Violence and Unrest

Despite efforts to modernize facilities, HMP maintains a notorious reputation for violence and disorder. Stabbings, beatings, riots, and even hostage takings have plagued the institution throughout its history. The prevalence of drugs, weapons, gang rivalries ensure tensions continually simmer behind the walls. Meanwhile excessive use of force complaints against guards and allegations of negligence by officials are frequently made.

See also  Joyceville Institution

Bleak Living Conditions

Cramped and Decrepit Housing

Inmates are double or even triple-bunked inside small, dilapidated cells infested with rats and mold. Up to 23 hours of confinement inside these cramped quarters is common due to frequent lockdowns and lack of staff. Access to the outdoors is extremely limited. Food quality and nutrition are substandard while sanitation is poor.

Physical and Mental Health Risks

The unsanitary and confined living conditions pose serious health and safety hazards for inmates. Illness outbreaks are common while resources for medical and mental healthcare are scarce. Solitary confinement regularly exacerbates existing mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Meanwhile, statistics show that suicide, overdoses, and violence make preventable death tragically common behind bars.

Oversight and Reform Efforts Continue to Fall Short

Repeated Calls for Change

For years advocacy groups, inmate lawsuits, and government commissions have called attention to inhumane conditions and human rights violations occurring regularly at HMP. Demands continue to be made for independent inquiries, policy changes, upgraded facilities, and improved staff training to address the failing corrections culture.

Lack of Accountability

Yet allegations of negligence, coverups, and excessive disciplinary tactics by prison staff persist. Meanwhile bureaucratic foot-dragging, funding issues, and resistance to transparency reforms allow these injustices to continue with little accountability for officials or guards.

Failing the Most Vulnerable

Indigenous, mentally ill, and female prisoner populations suffer disproportionately from discriminatory treatment, abuse, and lack of support programs inside HMP. Solitary confinement, arbitrary discipline, withholding medicines, and failing to prevent suicide show a system that punishes vulnerability rather than rehabilitating inmates.

See also  Toronto East Detention Centre

What Does the Future Hold for Canada’s Oldest Prison?

Potential Replacements

Plans continue creeping towards replacing the aging facility with a modern, fit-for-purpose correctional complex by 2026. Updated prisoner housing, health facilities, rehab programming, and even a mental health hospital have been proposed to support inmate welfare, rehabilitation, and ease chronic overcrowding.

Overdue Reforms

Truly transforming prison culture and outcomes, however, requires more than new buildings. Improving staff training, independent oversight, indigenous representation, mental health resources, and alternatives to isolating segregation have all been recommended for decades. Unfortunately political inertia has left genuine reform stagnant to date.

Prioritizing Rehabilitation Over Retribution

With public attitudes and legal standards evolving, there are hopes the redevelopment of HMP marks a new chapter emphasizing rehabilitation over punitive punishment in Canada’s prison system. However realizing this requires not just material but ideological change from corrections leadership and staff. The fate of HMP’s next era remains unwritten.


Her Majesty’s Penitentiary’s long history of dysfunction shows outdated facilities are only part of the corrections crisis in Newfoundland and Labrador. Improving staff accountability, updating policies, and emphasizing inmate welfare must happen in tandem with any new construction. The coming years will prove whether HMP can truly transition from a negligent relic of the carceral past towards the rehabilitative future standards now demand. There are no quick fixes for righting generations of damage done but the time for change is undoubtedly now.


Why does HMP have such an infamous reputation?

HMP is notorious for its violence, unrest, decrepit conditions and lack of oversight which have resulted in deaths, human rights complaints and calls for reform going back decades without adequate change occurring. Officials’ negligence and resistance to transparency perpetuate its failing and harmful prison culture.

See also  Central East Correctional Centre

What happens to vulnerable inmates like the mentally ill at HMP?

Vulnerable inmates often suffer discriminatory treatment and abuse without adequate medical/mental health resources. HMP has faced particularly harsh criticism for solitary confinement, arbitrary discipline, and failing to prevent suicides among indigenous, disabled and mentally ill prisoners.

Is HMP St. John’s going to be closed and replaced?

There are government plans in place to construct a modern prison facility to replace HMP’s aging, overcrowded buildings sometime around 2026. However advocates argue changed policies and culture focused on rehabilitation are equally necessary to transform corrections.

How can conditions, oversight and outcomes be improved at HMP in the short term?

In the short term, independent inquiries, policy reviews and staff accountability measures have been demanded to address negligence contributing towards deaths, violence and human rights violations occurring regularly. More resources for health, mental wellbeing and rehab programming could also quickly improve welfare.

What kinds of reforms are people calling for regarding HMP and provincial corrections?

Groups have called for years for transparency measures, upgraded facilities, crisis intervention training for guards, indigenous representation, restricted solitary confinement, improved mental health support/addiction treatment and expanding community integration/rehabilitation efforts to transform NL’s failing prison culture.

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