N.L. is planning a new prison, and those who will staff it have some suggestions

The union representing correctional officers in Newfoundland and Labrador, NAPE, released a report Tuesday authored by Rosemary Ricciardelli (front, centre). She is pictured here with NAPE president Jerry Earle (front left), NAPE secretary/treasurer Trevor King, and a group of correctional officers. (Terry Roberts/CBC - image credit)
The union representing correctional officers in Newfoundland and Labrador, NAPE, released a report Tuesday authored by Rosemary Ricciardelli (front, centre). She is pictured here with NAPE president Jerry Earle (front left), NAPE secretary/treasurer Trevor King, and a group of correctional officers. (Terry Roberts/CBC - image credit)

The people who will staff a proposed new prison in Newfoundland and Labrador were feeling left out of the planning process, so their union sponsored a study to ensure their voices will be heard.

But the government department that's spearheading the construction of the new facility said consultations with correctional staff have already taken place.

Nearly a dozen correctional officers from throughout the province assembled at their union headquarters in St. John's on Tuesday to witness the release of a study carried out by Rosemary Ricciardelli, a professor of sociology and criminology at the Fisheries and Marine Institute of Memorial University.

The study probed the work experiences of 28 correctional officers at Her Majesty's Penitentiary (HMP), which was constructed in 1859, and collected their ideas for improving correctional services as the province moves forward on a plan to construct a new prison in the capital city.

As expected, issues like staffing shortages, training inadequacies and a widespread feeling of exhaustion and fatigue — 24-hour mandatory shifts are not uncommon — bubbled to the surface as officers vented to the study's author.

"It was evident in every interview I did," Ricciardelli said of the challenging working conditions at HMP.

The union is also pleading for many of the recommendations to be implemented as soon as possible, since the completion of a new prison is at least three to five years in the future.

"These frontline officers need things yesterday and today," said Jerry Earle, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees (NAPE), which represents roughly 300 correctional officers in the province.

Mark Quinn/CBC
Mark Quinn/CBC

The provincial government announced nearly four years ago that it would replace HMP, a Victorian-era prison that has long been the target of criticism — from judges and inmates to staff and social justice advocates — because of its ancient design and crumbling infrastructure.

The province is proposing to build a new 276-bed correctional facility in St. John's through a public-private partnership with Avalon Corrections Partners, and is promising to include more programming, recreation, and better mental health services.

A statement from the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure said "procurement for the new correctional facility is currently ongoing" and that consultation with HMP staff "was completed during the procurement process."

The submission by Avalon Corrections Partners is being evaluated to ensure that the proposal provides best value to taxpayers, the department wrote in a statement to CBC News Tuesday.

Consultation was 'fairly limited,' says Earle

Earle, however, said there has been "fairly limited" consultation with the union and its members over how the new facility should be designed and staffed, so the union undertook its own initiative.

Ricciardelli and her team carried out the interview-based study last fall, through a lens of how to improve things like work life, training, security, relationships with colleagues and prisoners, and prisoner programming.

The final report includes a long list of recommendations that have been shared with Justice and Public Safety Minister John Hogan.

"No one knows the operations, issues and opportunities for improvement better than the workers on the front lines of our correctional system," said Earle. "As a result, is it integral that their voices are heard and their input carefully considered and incorporated."

Staffing levels a top priority

There's a well-documented shortage of correctional officers throughout the province, and that's raised concerns about safety, experience levels, the cancelling of prisoner rehabilitation and recreation programs, and created a morale deficit among officers.

The study blamed factors such as poor leadership and mandatory overtime for the human resources problem.

"It is saddening that I'm giving voice to officers when they have people who should be giving them voice and should be there and supporting their staff," said Ricciardelli, adding that "structural change" is needed so staff "feel valued and heard because that's the only way that people are going to continue in this job."

In addition to improving recruitment, retention and training for staff, the study also recommends a variety of structural and planning strategies that should be incorporated into the new prison. These include everything from wider cell doors and more accessible emergency exits to discreet staff parking lots in order to better protect their privacy.

Terry Roberts/CBC
Terry Roberts/CBC

The officers also want improved staff-to-prisoner ratios, enhanced mental health and wellness programs, expanded staff training, better communications equipment, and danger pay to reflect the volatile environment in which they work.

"Why don't officers receive danger pay given their occupation and the fact that they are policing in a very confined space and responding to altercations and incidents and disagreements between people?" Ricciardelli asked.

"The job is inherently risky. It is laced with exposures to potentially psychologically traumatic events."

The justice minister acknowledged Tuesday that he has received the report, and is reviewing it.

He said he met recently with HMP staff and, without offering any specifics, said "we agreed to come up with some creative solutions to help them have better working conditions down there."

Hogan said he recognizes the importance of ensuring correctional officers have a safe and healthy workplace, and said the new facility is being designed with input from correctional officers.

As for the ongoing challenges at HMP, such as stifling heat during the summer and rodent infestations, Hogan said: "Those are ad hoc things that come up and unfortunately they do come up and we work with them when they do arise."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador