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SPECIAL REPORT: Newfoundland and Labrador inmates speak out about life inside

A sign outside Her Majesty's Penitentiary.
A sign outside Her Majesty's Penitentiary. - Glen Whiffen

They detail bleak conditions, overcrowding and a general aura of despair

Some of them felt compelled to speak out in an effort to support former inmate Justin Jennings, after he shone a light on the harsh conditions in segregation at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary in provincial court.

Others just couldn’t handle being silent anymore after inmate Chris Sutton died by suicide in HMP, having written a note to the province’s Human Rights Commission days earlier, asking them for help and wondering if some of the prison’s policies were even legal.

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SPECIAL REPORT: Former St. John’s inmate Justin Jennings records the stark realities of prison life in his journal

Others saw The Telegram was about to publish an in-depth series about HMP from all angles, and felt this was likely a good time to have their voice heard. 

Telegram graphic
Telegram graphic

For a variety of reasons, inmates and former inmates at HMP have contacted The Telegram in recent weeks, hoping to share their experiences on the inside. Most of them asked for their identity to be withheld; some of them are still in the middle of court proceedings and are worried it could jeopardize their case or affect how they’re treated behind bars.

Some have put their encounters with the justice system behind them and have gone on to live productive lives with spouses and children and jobs and don’t need the attention to their criminal history that being named would bring.

As part of Corrections Week in the province in September 2017, Justice Minister Andrew Parsons got a first-hand look at the daily routine of correctional officers at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary and the St. John’s Lockup. Here, Parsons unlocks a cell on Unit 2 Range with assistance from a correctional officer. — Telegram file
As part of Corrections Week in the province in September 2017, Justice Minister Andrew Parsons got a first-hand look at the daily routine of correctional officers at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary and the St. John’s Lockup. Here, Parsons unlocks a cell on Unit 2 Range with assistance from a correctional officer. — Telegram file

One man admits he was one of the “heavier” guys; among the top feared and respected inmates in HMP due to the serious nature of his crimes and his network of friends. He served his time and didn’t look back once he was released, saying the birth of his children opened his eyes and inspired him to change his life. He threw away his cellphone and didn’t keep the contact numbers it held.

His days now are spent working and going to the playground and for ice cream, but he left part of himself inside the prison, still carrying with him the effects of being in segregation.

His story echoes that of Jennings and of that of Sutton — the latter as described in his letter before he died. Lights switched on 24 hours a day. Weeks without fresh air. Minimal time to shower and sometimes without soap, he says. Mental anguish and a lack of counselling and overcrowded cells with inmates suffering from a range of health concerns.

Those with anger management issues could be housed with inmates whose mental health issues caused them to laugh or bang on the walls continuously, all day and all night, he says.

“I’m not saying it’s wrong to put people in prison.”

He wants to make that clear.

“I can see why people say, ‘You do the crime, you do the time.’ And I can see why people need to be segregated, like if they’re known to be violent or to bring drugs in or whatever. But it’s the treatment they give you, it’s dehumanizing. It desensitizes people and turns them into animals.

“They want you to change your behaviour, but how? No one is talking to you, they’re just feeding you. How do you learn to change?”

Telegram graphic
Telegram graphic

Once an inmate is placed in segregation in the prison’s special handling unit (SHU), there are mandatory reviews. The man says he asked, during one of his reviews, what “correctional officer” was supposed to mean.

“Correctional officer. Corrections. I said, ‘You’re supposed to be correcting people. You’re just ordering people around,” he says. “I used a story about a dog. I told them, ‘Say you had a dog, and it was a good dog, but it chewed shoes and pissed on the floor. You didn’t help it learn, didn’t do anything to help change its behaviour, but you locked it in a cage every time it did something wrong. Would you be surprised if it bit you when you let it out?’ They asked me, ‘Is that a threat?’ I said no, it’s just a story about a dog. I’ll go back to the SHU now.” 

A shuttle van used to transport inmates to and from court appearances. — Joe Gibbons/The Telegram
A shuttle van used to transport inmates to and from court appearances. — Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

The man says he was taken instead to see prison psychologist Sam Martin, where he broke down in tears. Though years have passed and he has turned things around, he says he still suffers some after-effects of segregation. He doesn’t like crowds and he finds himself alone in his thoughts a lot of the time.

He agrees with Jennings’ suggestions for HMP, including independent mental health workers on site and available to inmates, and a prison ombudsman. He thinks there should be more accountability when it comes to putting inmates in segregation, with clear justification for it. And the facility itself — part of which is 150 years old — needs to be replaced simply for cleanliness and the smell of it, if for no other reason, he says, but that will only go so far to change things.

“If they build a new prison just to build a new prison, it doesn’t solve much and they’ll have a lot of the same problems,” he explains. “They need to put money into helping people. Right now they’re making the cycle of crime worse, because people are getting out mentally broken and angry and they’re going to get more violent. It’s going to become a stronger and stronger cycle. There has to be some other way.”

•••

Justice and Public Safety Minister Andrew Parsons, himself a lawyer who has long acknowledged the need for a new prison, says he shares the same belief: a bigger facility won’t mean much if that’s all that’s done.
The solutions begin outside the prison system, he points out, and have their root in mental health care and addictions treatment, which he says is a priority of his government. Inside, there are also changes to be made in that regard, and Parsons says government is working on it.

“We’re right in the process of implementing — and this was one of the recommendations of the all-party committee, that maybe we should have health care inside provided by the Department of Health as opposed to by Justice,” Parsons says.

“We’re in the process of changing that and I think that’s going to be a huge improvement.”

Parsons says he also hopes the public will realize the impacts of incarceration, financial and otherwise, and believes the government’s practice of sometimes inviting the media inside will help people understand what government, prison staff and inmates are dealing with, and perhaps change some harsh opinions.

“You know full well that there is a significant mentality amongst our population of crime and punishment. For every inmate that talks about wanting a new facility, there are probably 10 (other) people saying, ‘You know, you’re in there, there it is. Lock them up and do away with it,’ and I have to try to balance that.

“People contravene, they break the law, and there are repercussions, but that doesn’t mean one of the repercussions is that we have to make your time terrible. We’re working on it.”

•••

Mark Gruchy, a St. John’s defence lawyer, mental health advocate and winner of the 2016 Human Rights Award, takes issue with some of Parsons’ comments, saying there’s no balancing to be done in this situation at all. 

Defence lawyer and mental health advocate Mark Gruchy. — Joe Gibbons/The Telegram
Defence lawyer and mental health advocate Mark Gruchy. — Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

“He talks about balancing how we treat prisoners with the attitudes of some people in the community who I think would rather see everybody thrown into a dungeon or perhaps executed, in some cases. There is no place for the term ‘balancing’ to be made by a minister of Justice talking about ensuring that a prison is operating at basic human capacity,” Gruchy says.

“The punishment in a prison is the deprivation of liberty. Nothing more. That’s the only thing that’s supposed to be punishment, and you must ensure the prisons are operating in a fashion to treat these people with basic humanity and dignity.

“Because of how tricky it is, because of the fact that there isn’t going to be a clamouring group of people of huge numbers advocating and saying, ‘We’ll vote for you if you improve the lives of prisoners,’ because that’s the way it is, it becomes particularly important for the people who have power not to be balancing things, and to realize, in fact, that they have an ethical, moral and legal responsibility to ensure that those people who are at the mercy of the state in cages are treated well.”

He’s not talking about turning the prison into a five-star hotel, Gruchy says, but rather providing basic facilities and appropriate programming to manage inmates — a group of people with complex and varied issues — and minimize conflict between them is the goal. Gruchy says the province has a fiduciary duty to those in custody.

Inmates who have spoken about leaving HMP worse than when they went in should be taken seriously, according to Gruchy, who says the prison has outlived its usefulness as a 19th-century British naval institution not designed to address issues of addiction and employment and alienation.

“We’re talking about human beings who are in these conditions, who will be released eventually into our communities, and if you don’t house them and employ corrections with effectiveness, decency, humanity and a well-structured effort to try and ensure that these people don’t reoffend, what happens is they come back out and then one day you’re buying a bag of chips at a gas station one morning and you meet one of them in the middle of an armed robbery. That armed robbery didn’t start five minutes ago, it very frequently started when that person was in prison learning to do that.” 

Gruchy stressed the balancing idea isn’t isolated to the current government, but crosses political parties and is a problematic way of thinking. He doesn’t have a whole lot of faith in things at HMP changing immediately.

“The only way we’re going to see something major happen to Her Majesty’s Penitentiary is if someone gets into the minister of Justice seat who actually has strong moral fibre respecting what needs to be done and decides to actually do something that will matter in their life so that one day, when they wake up, they say, ‘Gee, I did something. I achieved something.’ We’ve got to wait for that person to come along. As it happens, we’ve been waiting for decades and people have got to demand for that to happen or it won’t.”

Sutton was one of three inmates to die in a prison in this province in as many months. Four have died in prison over the past year. Gruchy fears there are more to come.

“I’m concerned for the future,” he says. “When we’re at a place where family members are calling for inquiries into why their loved ones have died, we’re not at the place where someone who’s supposed to be responsible for the Department of Justice should be talking about balance.”

Twitter: @tara_bradbury

Her Majesty's Penitentiary in St. John's. — Glen Whiffen/The Telegram
Her Majesty's Penitentiary in St. John's. — Glen Whiffen/The Telegram

A sample of quotes from inmates
and former inmates at HMP
who contacted The Telegram,
wanting to share their story:

• “I don’t know what they expect. If they treat people like animals, people will act like animals.”

• “They are only interested in punishing you. You can see it on their faces and they can see it on yours. Once you’re broken, they’ll ease up.”

• “Staff were all right, in my opinion, for the most part. They also have it difficult there.”

• “There isn’t a whole lot of rehabilitation happening at HMP. But I can give comparisons. I spent (time in prison in another province in the early ‘90s) and the difference is staggering. Acts of violence are rare (in the other institution) because the inmates are content. There is plenty to keep you busy and you get outside often. The lowest-paying job (there) in 1994 was $4.20 a day. You get less than that at HMP today. On the ranges at HMP there is a small TV hanging from the ceiling with no seating to watch it. At (the other institution) your range had a sound-proof TV room with plenty of seating. I could go on.”

• “Inmates can go to recreation four or five times a week and work out, play basketball, etc. But they can only visit the library once per month. For some people, mental exercise is more needed than the physical.”

• “I wanted permission to call my mom on Mother’s Day, just for a couple minutes is all. The (correctional officers) could have stood next to me the entire time. Denied.”

• “The place stinks. Like, it just stinks. Reeks. I don’t know how the staff can stand it, let alone us. It can’t be healthy."

• “The guards starting making comments towards my girlfriend regarding me whenever she’d come visit. One of the guards added my girlfriend on Facebook and messaged her, all the while knowing I was her boyfriend. When she told me the day he added her and told me his name, I became very angry. I felt so disrespected on a whole other level. I went to a guard I have known for a long time and told him the situation… He told me to leave it with him. Later that day, the guard in question was on my range doing medication. He took me aside in a cell and apologized. He later apologized to my girlfriend.”

• “What can I say? (The disciplinary segregation area) is called The Hole for a reason. It’s disgusting and you could lose your mind down there. But you know what? Some days I’d pick that place over being jammed into a cell with guys who are so mentally ill they are screaming and yelling and throwing sh*t.”

• “The correctional staff at HMP actually allows inmates to remove the razor blades from the razors. The reason why the guards at HMP allow this to occur is because the razor blades are being used to give haircuts. The inmates fix the blades to a comb and cut each other’s hair. It actually works very well, but that’s besides the point. The blades could be used to harm oneself or someone else.”

NOTE: The Telegram asked a Department of Justice spokeswoman about correctional officers allowing inmates to modify razor blades for this use. Her response: “Inmates are permitted to purchase a variety of items from the canteen, including razors for personal hygiene purposes only. The safety and well-being of all inmates and staff is a top priority. Allowing inmates to modify razors for any purpose other than what they are intended for could jeopardize safety and security inside the prison and it is not permitted. If an inmate is found in possession of a razor that has been modified for any purpose other than its intended use, the inmate will face disciplinary charges.”

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