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This prison inmate in N.L. says a rat gave birth in his pants — but it was no surprise

Inmate Devon Fitzpatrick says a rodent infestation is one of many problems that make living at Her Majesty's Penitentiary intolerable.

Lawyer says the public will pay the price for deplorable prison conditions

Her Majesty's Penitentiary inmate Devon Fitzpatrick says early one morning in mid-May he woke up and felt something moving in the crotch of his pants. When he reached in, he discovered a rat had given birth there.

But the incident wasn't shocking or even surprising, he said in a sit-down interview with CBC News.

An ongoing rodent infestation at the St. John's jail — parts of which date back to the Victorian era — means "stuff like that happens on a regular basis," said Fitzpatrick.

"You see 'em coming in and out of your cell. They climb up on the tables, they climb up the pipes and the wires. They're everywhere," he said.

The Newfoundland and Labrador government announced in this year's provincial budget that it will spend $15 million over the next two years on temporary upgrades to the penitentiary, with $8 million earmarked for this year.

Plans to build a replacement for the jail have been stalled for years. Transportation and Infrastructure Minister John Abbott told reporters last week that the provincial government is going to the "next stage" with New Avalon Corrections Partners, the only company that came forward with a proposal to build a new prison.

Abbott said the provincial government will soon announce more details about what the "next stage" is and predicted the prison would be completed some time in 2026 or 2027.

The provincial Justice Department declined an interview request. A statement from department spokesperson Eric Humber said pest control is "contracted to service the facility on a regular basis."

Humber's statement also said work will begin on new outdoor recreation and programming spaces, as well as a new admissions building, in the coming weeks.

WATCH | An HMP inmate shares what it's like to live in a prison overrun with rats and mice:

This HMP inmate says a rat gave birth in his pants

4 hours ago

Duration 2:35

Her Majesty’s Penitentiary inmate Devon Fitzpatrick says he wasn’t too surprised when he woke up early one morning and found rats in his pants. He tells the CBC’s Jessica Singer that a rodent infestation is one of many ongoing issues that make living at the correctional facility intolerable.

Fitzpatrick, who's been incarcerated for over 10 months on a variety of firearms and assault charges, says he's been bitten by rats around 20 times. Inmates are rarely let outside for recreation, he said, and aren't provided rehabilitation programming or adequate and timely health care.

Criminal defence lawyer Erin Breen says she has five clients at HMP. One of them tried to make a hammock out of his sheets, she told CBC News, because rodents were crawling over him through the night. Inmates have told her stories of finding rats and mice in their food, mattresses and clothing.

On a recent visit to the prison, she said, an inmate brought her a cup of water that had solid orange bits and an orange film floating in it.

Life in the prison is dehumanizing, she said, and if inmates aren't properly rehabilitated the public will pay the price.

"People are hopeless inside … and they're not coming back out equipped to deal with the world in a better way," she said.

'You wouldn't put an animal in this'

When Fitzpatrick woke up that morning — May 11, around 3:30 — he thought he'd soiled himself. Then he saw a rat run out through the bottom of his pants, and when he reached into his pants he found a tiny, pink rat.

"Yes, we're incarcerated. Most people here are here for a reason. People do crimes, we get convicted, we spend time here. But I wouldn't even put a dog in here where we're being housed," he said.

On May 22, Fitzpatrick says, he and eight other inmates decided to protest by refusing to be locked in for lunchtime. They wrote a note to their unit's lieutenant, requesting that a health inspector and rodent exterminator be brought in, and that inmates be provided hot showers.

WATCH | This criminal defence lawyer says living in HMP is 'dehumanizing':

Lawyer says the public will pay the price for deplorable conditions inside HMP

4 hours ago

Duration 2:11

Criminal defence lawyer Erin Breen, who has five clients living in Her Majesty’s Penitentiary, says the living conditions described to her from inside the jail are dehumanizing and deplorable. If inmates aren’t properly rehabilitated, she says, the public will also pay the price.

The protest got him 10 days in segregation, he said, and it didn't lead to any tangible change. He said he can see more protests — or riots — happening in the future.

"There's no fresh air. We don't get off the unit at all. The rats are killing us, like … you wouldn't put an animal in this. So everyone needs to stand up for themselves sooner or later," he said.

"We finally had it to the point that we did, and we all ended up getting punished for it."

CBC News investigations have found that HMP staff have filed scores of reports, with one staff member writing in July 2022 that inmates were at the point of "rioting/becoming violent" because of the "unfit living conditions" inside the jail.

Breen says there are too many inmates and not enough staff in HMP, so prisoners are often locked into their cells with limited access to recreation and fresh air, and family visits are often cancelled.

She says she hasn't heard that any improvements have been made to the jail since the province announced it would be putting millions into temporary upgrades.

Fitzpatrick says he hopes things will get better but the provincial government is neglecting some of society's most vulnerable in the meantime. It's a vicious cycle, he said, and he's not confident it will end any time soon.

"Coming in here, there's no anger management, there's no programming to help us, say, to defer us from committing the crime again," he said.

"So once we get out of here, most people hit the street and are homeless right away."

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Jessica Singer is a journalist with CBC Newfoundland and Labrador. She has worked in CBC newsrooms in Toronto and St. John's. You can reach her at jessica.singer@cbc.ca

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