ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — A retired Ontario health inspector says reports from inmates and judges about rodents at Newfoundland’s largest jail suggest an “extreme” and long-standing infestation.
Marilyn Lee, professor emeritus at Toronto Metropolitan University’s School of Occupational and Public Health, was taken aback in a recent interview by reports of rodents biting and climbing over inmates as they slept at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary in St. John’s. She said the outbreak at the aging facility poses serious health concerns for guards and inmates.
“Prisoners or whoever, they shouldn’t have to put up with something like a rodent infestation, no matter what the species is,” said Lee, who inspected stores, restaurants and correctional facilities in Ontario in the 1980s.
Her Majesty’s Penitentiary first opened in 1859, though it has seen several upgrades and overhauls. Its crumbling, outdated infrastructure is well documented, as are its rampant problems with rodents.
A ruling last year from a provincial court judge includes details about a 25-year-old inmate who was bitten by a rodent while he was sleeping. “He observed what appeared to be teeth marks in the wound,” Judge Jacqueline Brazil wrote, adding that the penitentiary nurse agreed the bite was likely from a rodent.
Lee was particularly struck by this incident.
“It would have to be a huge infestation” for a rodent to bite someone unprovoked, she said, adding that she encountered just one instance of a rodent biting someone in six years of health inspecting.
Rats are more likely to bite than mice, and they can cause an illness called rat bite fever, Lee said. She pointed to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s website, which says rat bite fever can cause “severe disease and death” if left untreated.
The bitten inmate at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary was given antibiotics, Brazil said in her ruling.
The Canadian Press spoke with several inmates last month who said mice scurry around at all hours of the day. One said they climbed over his body as he slept on the concrete floor, trying to escape the aging facility’s stifling heat. Another inmate said mouse droppings spill out of the vents when air blows through.
“That’s pretty extreme, that’s a really bad infestation,” Lee said in response to their stories. “Especially if they’re seeing rodents during the day.”
The inmates also described a heavy, permeating smell of rodent urine, which Lee agreed was unmistakable. Forcing people to live among that scent, she said, is “unacceptable.”
Rodents carry a host of diseases in their saliva, urine and feces, Lee said. The most common risk from mice and rats is salmonella. They can also spread hantavirus, though Canada typically sees fewer than five cases each year, she said.
The provincial Justice Department said professional pest control companies visit the jail regularly.
“The department takes the responsibility of having inmates in our care very seriously,” it said in an emailed statement on Tuesday. “Infrastructure issues present a challenge at (Her Majesty’s Penitentiary), and as a department, we are working with the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure to address maintenance concerns as they arise.”
The Newfoundland and Labrador Human Rights Commission gets a steady stream of phone calls from inmates at the penitentiary about issues including the heat inside the cells and rodents running across the floors, said Carey Majid, the agency’s executive director.
Complaints about conditions inside the jail fall outside the commission’s mandate, which was set up to enforce the province’s Human Rights Act. The act deals with discrimination based on protected grounds, such as race, nationality and gender identity.
However, Majid said staff at the Human Rights Commission will bring the inmates’ complaints to the province’s citizens’ representative, which acts as a provincewide ombudsperson for people who feel they were treated unfairly by government offices and agencies. When it can, the commission works with the citizens’ representative to have complaints addressed, she said in a recent interview.
Majid has visited the penitentiary several times. She questioned whether many of the inmates need to be incarcerated, adding that it costs more to put someone through the justice system than to provide them with the social services that may have kept them out of jail in the first place.
“You think about legal aid, judges, (incarceration) costs, policing costs,” she said. “And really what that person needs is mental health support and good, stable, secure housing or addiction support.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 14, 2023.
Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press