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HMP’s ‘complete inadequacy’ leads to harsh words from St. John's judge and reduced jail term for Newfoundland man

Justin Jennings smiles as he is escorted from a St. John’s courtroom to the holding cells for a final time, to await the paperwork releasing him from custody.
Justin Jennings smiles as he is escorted from a St. John’s courtroom to the holding cells for a final time, to await the paperwork releasing him from custody. - Tara Bradbury

The “complete inadequacy” of Her Majesty’s Penitentiary (HMP) led a provincial court judge to release an inmate from custody Thursday after reducing his sentence due to conditions he has suffered behind bars over the past year.

Judge James Walsh said he was stopping short of using the word “misconduct” when it comes to the actions of HMP staff, since he felt the word was too severe.

He didn’t, however, hold back when it came to his thoughts on the factors that caused Justin Jennings to spend an excessive amount of time in segregation.

Jennings, 34, pleaded guilty to three assault charges, a charge of driving while prohibited and three breaches of court orders in relation to incidents between January 2017 and March of this year.

The assaults happened at HMP and in each one, Jennings appears to suddenly lash out and punch and kick a fellow inmate in the head, unprovoked.

Calling the evidence he had heard from prison officials and Jennings “disturbing,” Walsh said the prison had failed to protect Jennings and the inmates he assaulted.

The judge referenced a letter sent to prison officials by HMP psychologist Sam Martin, saying Jennings was on the verge of a complete mental breakdown and recommending he be removed from segregation immediately, which went ignored.

“(Prison psychiatrist) Dr. (David) Craig chose to dismiss Mr. Martin’s recommendations and blamed Mr. Jennings for being ‘clearly the author of his own misfortune,’” Walsh said. “In his letter to assistant superintendent (Diana) Gibbons dated March 6, 2017, Dr. Craig wrote, ‘HMP is, by its very nature, a punitive institution, not a therapeutic one.’”

Craig had chosen to keep Jennings in segregation after one 15-minute meeting with him, the judge noted, while Martin had met with Jennings at least six times for more than an hour each time before he wrote his letter.

“Based on the evidence before me, this decision failed to protect inmates from Mr. Jennings … and it failed to protect the inmate, Mr. Jennings, himself,” Walsh said.

Medication prescribed to Jennings by one prison psychiatrist after a lengthy assessment at the Waterford Hospital was discontinued inappropriately, by Craig, the judge noted, saying he was at a loss to understand why. Jennings’ own warning to prison staff that he was “spiralling out of control” was ignored, Walsh said.

Related story:
It’s a grim life in HMP segregation, inmate tells St. John’s court

Walsh also had strong words about an HMP classification officer’s report, which noted Jennings’ only health concern was ADHD and recommended that he be sent to the specific unit he had asked to avoid. This launched Jennings into an anxious state, Walsh concluded, which ultimately led to one of the assaults.

Walsh also said the prison’s policy of mixing inmates who have mental health issues with those who do not was “a recipe for disaster.”

Jennings was properly disciplined for the assaults, Walsh said, but was denied programming and outside contact, saw reduced exercise periods and was placed in segregation for excessive amounts of time.

“Many of these decisions are affected by the facility itself,” the judge said. “There are limited options available to prison officials in that facility as to where to house inmates whose condition is like that of Mr. Jennings. However, what is there must be used judiciously, fairly, and not excessively.

“I find that the totality of the decisions made by the classification officer, the medical unit and the excessive use of segregation justified a reduced sentence in this case.”

Walsh sentenced Jennings to time served, and praised him for what he said was a “noteworthy turnaround” after seeking counselling with Martin, taking up art and journaling, and turning to self-help books to learn to manage his anger and anxiety.

Prosecutor Dana Sullivan had argued for a sentence of 10 to 11 months, less time served, with no extra credit beyond the standard 1.5 to 2 credit.

Inmates placed in segregation because of their bad behaviour shouldn’t be able to get extra credit beyond the usual, Sullivan said.

Twitter: @tara_bradbury

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