Her Majesty’s Penitentiary, (H.M.P.) St. John’s is one of the oldest stone structures in the province, and is one of the oldest, stand-alone stone prisons in Newfoundland and Labrador. It has held countless inmates since the first prisoner took to his cell in 1859.
Since that first prisoner, H. M. Penitentiary has been fodder for reformers and critics.
In June 1890 the House of Assembly of Newfoundland passed a piece of Legislation known as “An Act to provide for the Commutation of Sentences for good behavior and industry of Prisoners confined to the Penitentiary.” Essentially the legislation allowed for the release of prisoners for good behavior before they completed their full sentence.
The new legislation was the talk of the town. Some were quite critical other reformers suggested that more could be done.
On June 19, 1890 one such reformer in a letter to the St. John’s newspaper the Evening Telegram wrote:
“One of the greatest difficulties in the punishment of convicted persons in this country, (Newfoundland) lies in the fact that it is often impossible to punish the guilty without making the innocent suffer far more severely.”
The writer (he wrote under the pen name Reformer) was suggesting that once convicted and imprisoned the man is “inflicting beggary upon his family.”
The writer proposed a remedy. He wrote:
“The only remedy for this appears to be that a variety of industries should be established in the penitentiary; that every person imprisoned should be obliged to labor at some industry; and that his earnings should be applied to the support of his family, where such support is needed. In this way, all law-breakers would be gradually deprived of public pity, the respect for the law would grow stronger in the whole community; and the law, being backed up by public opinion, would gain a stronger hold upon the conscience of every individual in the community.”
Insisting that every person imprisoned should be obliged to labor at some industry had the advantage he wrote “to give the prisoner a chance to learn a trade.” He continued:
“In this way, too, every person imprisoned would learn some trade (more or less perfectly, according to the length of his term, and the nature of the industry); every such person would probably acquire habits of industry; and thus there would be greater security against a relapse into evil ways after discharge from the prison.”
Since it was founded in 1859 until the early 1900’s prison work crews could be seen about the city working on public buildings and there grounds. One industry or trade that was developed at the penitentiary was the trade of ‘broom making’ most of the brooms found in Newfoundland households were at one time made by the prisoners of the penitentiary.
Recommended Archival Collection: At the Rooms Provincial Archives: Statistics Showing the Number of Persons in the Penitentiary [Fonds GN 170] Newfoundland and Labrador court records collection.
Recommended Reading: 2008 “Judging the Prisons of Newfoundland and Labrador: the Perspectives of Inmates and Ex-inmates”, in Poirier, S., Brown, G. and Carlson, T., in Decades of Darkness: Moving towards the Light. A Review of the Prison System in Newfoundland and Labrador, Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, pp. 139-202.