'Devil's always in the details' of plan to replace HMP, and details are scant

With a provincial election looming large and government purses suddenly bursting at the seams, forgive Mark Gruchy if he seems a little cynical about the timing of an announcement to build a new jail in Newfoundland and Labrador.

For years, the defence lawyer and mental health advocate has been calling for a replacement to Her Majesty's Penitentiary in St. John's, which opened in 1859 — the name a reference to then-Queen Victoria.

"Many people have said they're going to build a new penitentiary and there's been hope raised before," said Gruchy.

"And we're still here. So in many respects I feel like we're just going over the same ground."

Gruchy wants to know more about the proposal. Namely, when will a new jail be built, and how will it be run?

Mark Quinn/CBC

When Justice Minister Andrew Parsons and Transportation and Works Minister Steve Crocker announced their plan Wednesday, they said government would partner with a private company to design, build, finance and maintain the new facility.

Gruchy called the strategy "poorly defined" and said the public needs to know more about what the province is proposing. He's concerned about the implications of a private company handling building maintenance at a jail.

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"Your customers can't complain because they're literally in cages. What incentive do you have to properly maintain the building? Not much," he said.

"Really, it's about the details. The devil's always in the details and we don't really have a whole lot at this point."

Trails in jeopardy

The lawyer and advocate isn't the only person with questions.

The new facility — with a price tag of $200 million — is set to be built in White Hills, in the east end of St. John's, and would have the capacity to house twice as many inmates as Her Majesty's Penitentiary.

Mark Quinn/CBC

Though home to provincial headquarters for the RCMP and DFO, not to mention the Robin Hood Bay landfill, the sprawling White Hills area is covered in scenic trails and wilderness used by hikers, cyclists and birders.

Outdoor enthusiasts like Lachlan Roe-Bose, head of the Avalon Mountain Bike Association, want to know if those trails will be destroyed.

I think that has to be taken into account but I'm confident that something can be worked out because this is a project that needs to go forward. - Andrew Parsons

Based on the rough sketch he's seen of the building's proposed location, Roe-Bose believes a third of the trails in the area will be compromised.

"It has to go somewhere," he said, "Does it have to go in an area so close to the core of downtown? So close to the quaint village of Quidi Vidi, which is a major tourist attraction?"

Runner Katie Wadden said she hopes the provincial government is open to working with trail-users.

"Our biggest fear, I guess, is that everything would be taken away," she said.

"There's such a long-standing history of recreational use in the White Hills that we really want to work with them."

Malone Mullin/CBC

It's another detail that is yet to be worked out, and according to the justice minister it's one that will be sorted by the transportation and works department.

As for his own opinion on the issue, Andrew Parsons has mixed feelings.

"We've worked extremely hard over three years to move what many thought was impossible and now it looks like it's possible," he said.

"It's a bit tough, but I would never say to these groups that use these areas that, 'No, we're not concerned about you.' I mean, I think that has to be taken into account but I'm confident that something can be worked out because this is a project that needs to go forward."

Her Majesty's Hotel?

Then there's the question of what to do with Her Majesty's Penitentiary. Parts of the160-year-old complex have been part of the St. John's landscape longer than Cabot Tower, Memorial University and St. Clare's Mercy Hospital.

Jerry Dick, the executive director of the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador, believes the original structure has historical value. In part, that is because it is one of a few stone buildings left in the capital city.

Malone Mullin/CBC

Dick said there are a few different ways to reuse the building while maintaining its architectural value and also acknowledging its draconian history, which includes executions by hanging, debtors' jail and a literal dungeon.

One option, Dick said, is to establish a museum to tell the story.

"But other communities have dealt with adaptive reuse of their prisons by finding new uses, kind of positive sorts of things," he said.

"In my research I found a number that have been turned into cultural centres, in some cases they've been turned into hotels."

The justice minister said nothing's been decided yet.

"There's a lot of possibilities. It's a beautiful location," Parsons said.

Paula Gale/CBC

"There's some kind of history still in that building that I think needs to be preserved."

On that point, Gruchy, whose clients have spent countless days inside those jail walls, agrees. He thinks a museum is the appropriate use.

"But I hope it's the right kind of museum because an awful lot of tragedy has gone on in there and it's pretty amazing to my mind that it still exists."

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