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John Abbott, Newfoundland and Labrador's minister of transportation and infrastructure, is shown in St. John's on Dec. 20.Sarah Smellie/The Canadian Press

High costs have stalled plans to replace a notoriously harsh Newfoundland and Labrador jail, where a rodent infestation led to an inmate being bitten and black mould shut down in-person visits.

The province had hoped to build a replacement for Her Majesty’s Penitentiary in St. John’s by 2026, with construction beginning this year. However, officials were forced to revisit their original plans and make “cost-containing” changes, says John Abbott, the province’s minister of transportation and infrastructure.

He told reporters Thursday it’s now hoped construction on a new building will begin in 2025.

“This is a priority project for the government, and it is certainly my priority,” Abbott said. “It has to be done. We know it has to be done. And we've just got to get it right.”

Her Majesty’s Penitentiary looms over a small lake and popular walking trail in the downtown area of St. John's. The oldest part of the jail opened in 1859. Since then, it has been renovated a few times, with extensions built, making the facility a sprawling maze of outdated infrastructure plagued with issues.

A rodent bit a sleeping inmate, who had to be treated with antibiotics, according to a provincial court ruling last year, and in October the facility’s in-person visiting room was shut down because of black mould.

Two inmates have died there in the past five months. The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary said Wednesday it is investigating the circumstances of the second death, involving a 35-year-old man who died Dec. 2 after he was taken to hospital from the penitentiary.

The jail houses medium- and maximum-security offenders sentenced to fewer than two years’ detention, inmates on remand, and those awaiting transfer to a federal prison.

Cindy Murphy, executive director of the John Howard Society of Newfoundland and Labrador, says conditions at the penitentiary are “disgraceful” and that she is extremely disappointed by the delay in replacing it.

“There’s so many things that are happening at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary that we just can’t wait for a new facility,” Murphy said in an interview.

The province, she added, should consider alternatives to incarceration, including whether it can release some detainees waiting for trial. It should also increase the availability of supportive housing and hasten access to welfare programs for recently released inmates, both of which are known to reduce recidivism, Murphy said.

Provincial governments have been promising to replace the penitentiary since at least 2014. The current government issued a request for proposals in 2021 for a new building. Three companies responded and then two dropped out. Since then, the rise in cost of labour and construction materials has made the plans for a new building swell beyond what the government is aiming to spend, Abbott said.

The plans have been adjusted and the province is now looking for a new company to realize them, he said. A request for qualifications will go out in January, with a deadline of Feb. 16.

In the meantime, the province is looking at adding “temporary outbuildings” for inmates and services offered to them. Justice Minister John Hogan said a trailer arrived Wednesday morning in which dental and medical services will be offered.

Air quality testing was also done on the in-person visiting room, and it reopened on Wednesday morning, too, Hogan said.

“Nobody is here saying, ’(Her Majesty’s Penitentiary is pretty good, let’s not rush the new one,’” Hogan told reporters. “Everyone’s acknowledged in this province, and this government and previous governments, that it’s time for a new facility. And in the meantime, we have to address concerns and issues as they come up.”

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