Amid housing crisis, decrepit N.L. jail seen as preferable to living on the street

Amid housing crisis, decrepit N.L. jail seen as preferable to living on the street
A tent is shown in an encampment in front of the Colonial Building in St. John's, Friday, Dec. 1, 2023. T

Michael Keough has to pause in the middle of his phone call from Newfoundland and Labrador’s largest jail to cough and wipe his eyes — there’s black mould on the wall where the phones are, he explains, and it irritates him after a while.

The 37-year-old is back at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary in St. John’s after declining a bail hearing in September and consenting to be placed on remand in the 164-year-old crumbling building, where an ongoing rodent infestation led to an inmate being bitten in his sleep.

The conditions inside the penitentiary are horrific, Keough said. But outside, he said, they’re worse. Keough is homeless, and he was living in a tent and panhandling before his current stay at the penitentiary. When someone stole his tent and he had nowhere left to go, he started stealing food again, waiting to be picked up by police and sent back to jail, where he’d at least have meals and a bed.

“If I was released on bail back in September, I would have been back in the same boat. I would have had no resources to help me get on income support, or anywhere to be housed in. So I would have been just under the same circumstance, building up more and more criminal charges,” he said in an interview, adding that there are “several” other men in the penitentiary on purpose, because they were homeless on the outside.

“This is the system I’m submersed in,” he added.

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The housing crisis gripping the country is having a profound effect on the justice system, speeding up the well-established carousel between homelessness and incarceration, according to people who work with incarcerated people. Inmates in provincial institutions are already released with few supports in place, said Ontario lawyer Beth Bromberg. But now, as homeless encampments spread across Canada, programs that find vulnerable people a spot in low-income or supportive housing are completely overrun.

“It is more and more difficult — actually I’d say it’s impossible, at this point, to get people housing,” Bromberg said in an interview about her efforts to find recently incarcerated people a place to live.

So they go back to shelters or sleep rough, where it’s hard for support people to stay in touch with them, and where they’re more likely to fall back into mental crises or addictions, which probably landed them in jail in the first place, she said. And that makes them more likely to reoffend.

“People cycle in and out of the provincial systems because they don’t have their needs met when they are released,” Bromberg said. “And that costs our communities a fortune in incarceration, and in hospitalizations and in ambulances.”

In British Columbia, Mo Korchinski runs Unlocking The Gates, a non-profit that picks up inmates when they’re released and helps them find shelter, food and other necessities.

She, too, said it’s all but impossible to find people a place to live, or even a spot in a shelter, because everything is full. As some governments scramble to make plans to solve the housing crisis in their province, Korchinski said they’d be wise to consider adding more supportive housing for people released from jail.

“Throwing (homeless people) in an out of corrections where they’re just basically warehoused isn’t the answer,” Korchinski said in an interview.

In St. John’s, Keough said he’s been in an out of incarceration for years. He’s lived much of his life alone — his mother is dead, and his other family members have turned him away because of his drug addictions, he said.

He was last released from custody from Her Majesty’s Penitentiary in April with “nothing but a phone number for an emergency shelter,” he said. When he couldn’t get a shelter bed, he pitched a tent behind a hockey rink.

Money was scarce — it takes at least 28 days to be approved for social assistance in Newfoundland and Labrador, and he had neither a phone nor an address for anyone trying to contact him — so he panhandled, he said. But when his tent got stolen, he gave up.

“I turned back to what I’ve been doing for the last 20 years of my life, stealing from stores … and surviving that way,” he said.

He’s now awaiting trial on charges including robbery, assault and break and enter. “It’s the security at least in knowing that I’m not going to be out in the rain and the cold for this winter,” Keough said of life behind bars.

He would like to break the cycle but says he can’t get the help to do it. “I do genuinely want to move forward.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 2, 2023.

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