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Over $4M spent since 2007 on plans for a N.L. penitentiary that has never been built

The Newfoundland and Labrador government has spent millions of dollars in the last two decades to plan and design a prison that has yet to be built.

CBC News obtained the numbers through an access to information request that shows a history of government promises and spending, then shelving of plans to replace the notorious facility that’s thought to be the oldest in Canada. 

The province announced Wednesday that it is going back to the drawing board on a new prison, which was originally supposed to break ground in 2022. Infrastructure Minister John Abbott and Justice Minister John Hogan told reporters during a news conference the cost put forward by the sole bidder was too high and that the province will re-issue a request for qualifications. 

The figure, which was presented to the province a year ago, has never been disclosed. However, Abbott said it was more than $500 million — too much, he said, for the province to spend. 

“What we said [was] we’ve got to step back and reassess that. So just to be fair to the taxpayer, be fair to everybody else that we need to get get these numbers right,” Abbott told reporters. 

A spokesperson for the Department of Infrastructure and Transportation confirmed by email that the request for proposals included a $1.5 million stipend to Avalon Corrections Partners for costs incurred in preparing an “RFP-compliant submission,” but that the design — which the spokesperson says is 30 per cent complete — remains the government’s intellectual property.

The money hasn’t been paid out yet and isn’t included in the $4.09 million total contained within the documents released through access to information.

A black and white tables shows business names and prices.
A slew of architects and consultants has been contracted over the years to plan for a replacement for Her Majesty’s Penitentiary. (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador)

In October 2013, then-Justice Minister Darin King announced that the government of Newfoundland and Labrador was replacing HMP without help from Ottawa.

The breakdown of figures shows prior to that announcement over $550,000 was spent on pre-design consulting services and an assessment of adult custody infrastructure. More than $360,000 was spent in 2014 on a master plan for a new prison.

The Department of Transportation and Infrastructure paid over $3 million since announcing plans to build a new prison in 2019.

WATCH I Minister John Abbott explains the latest delay for a new prison: 

over 4m spent since 2007 on plans for a n l penitentiary that has never been built 1

Back to square one for Her Majesty’s Penitentiary, currently home to rodents and black mould

18 hours ago

Duration 1:25

Transportation and Infrastructure Minister John Abbott admits the provincial government wasn’t as realistic as it needed to be when it came to the cost of a new prison. The price tag grew from $225 million to upwards of half a billion dollars, according to Abbott, due to increased construction costs. Now, a new request for qualifications has to be issued — more than a year after a sole bidder already submitted its plan — and construction on a smaller facility won’t start until at least 2025.

“That’s a lot of money,” said Cindy Murphy, long-time executive director of the John Howard Society.

“When I think about it from a community perspective and what you’re able to do with that kind of dollars, I mean, that’s huge. It’s absolutely huge.”

Murphy said she hopes the plan and design created by Avalon Corrections Partners aren’t shelved all together because she liked what she saw.

“We saw a lot of good stuff that was incorporated into the new plans and excellent program space, and [it was] bright and spacious,” Murphy said.

“Far from the hotel conditions. But it was more conducive to rehabilitation and that’s what we should be focused on.”

WATCH I ‘Ridiculous’ conditions of HMP makes replacement delay even more frustrating, says John Howard Society executive director:

over 4m spent since 2007 on plans for a n l penitentiary that has never been built 2

HMP delay frustrating, given ‘ridiculous’ conditions of crumbling prison: John Howard Society

2 hours ago

Duration 0:38

Cindy Murphy says hearing rumours of a delay and higher costs is one thing, but to have it confirmed that it’s back to the drawing board for a replacement is quite the blow. She’s the executive director of the John Howard Society, a non-profit organization that works with people in the legal system and focuses on prison reform. Murphy says with construction at least a year away, the provincial government has to look at alternatives to sending people to the prison — where applicable — which has rodent and mould problems.

Abbott said the new request for qualifications will look for a smaller facility with a stacked floor design.

“We will be reducing the overall size of the facility, not the programming, which is going to change the model from a campus model to something that’s a little bit more traditional,” Abbott said.

For Murphy, the news of yet another delay comes as a disappointment. She said she finds it hard trusting politicians to keep their word, but said, she can do little else.

“We just have to hold government’s feet to the fire, you know, [to] try to keep them on a timeline, try to move this forward as we’ve always done and recognize the importance of this work.”

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