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

Justin Jennings, 34, poses outside Her Majesty’s Penitentiary in St. John’s earlier this month. Jennings was released from HMP in May, after a provincial court judge ruled he deserved a lighter than usual sentence because of the conditions he endured in prison.
Justin Jennings, 34, poses outside Her Majesty’s Penitentiary in St. John’s earlier this month. Jennings was released from HMP in May, after a provincial court judge ruled he deserved a lighter than usual sentence because of the conditions he endured in prison. - Tara Bradbury

‘Why am I being tortured?’

It’s not clear whether Justin Jennings was writing a letter to prison officials, as he had in the past, or a diary entry, notes for himself in an effort to organize his thoughts and perhaps feel like he was doing something — anything — to improve himself while in segregation at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary (HMP).

In any case, the urgency of his words, written in pencil on long paper, is visible and grows with each letter. What started out neatly turns large and hurried, with words underlined in deeper strokes for emphasis.

“Why am I being tortured?” he wrote. “All I wanted was help to be rehabilitated.”

Jennings would later recall those moments in the prison’s Special Handling Unit (SHU) while testifying at his sentencing hearing in provincial court, as his lawyer argued for extra jail time credit, given the life he lived behind bars.

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Jennings says he spent 23 hours a day in his cell, housed with up to 14 others in a unit meant for five, and was denied many privileges as well as the ADHD medication he had been prescribed since he was in kindergarten.

Many of the inmates had complex mental health issues, and Jennings speaks of certain men constantly yelling or smearing feces on themselves and the walls.

At one point, after learning from prison officials that he wouldn’t be going back onto a regular range any time soon, he says he had what he figures was a mental breakdown, crying and hyperventilating and wanting to die.

“I just didn’t want to wake up anymore. I just wanted to die to get out of it,” Jennings told The Telegram.

Justin Jennings and his girlfriend, Alyssa Dodd, earlier this month. While Jennings was in segregation in prison, Dodd advocated for him by writing to politicians and members of the media, trying to change what she says were cruel conditions that caused his mental health to deteriorate.
Justin Jennings and his girlfriend, Alyssa Dodd, earlier this month. While Jennings was in segregation in prison, Dodd advocated for him by writing to politicians and members of the media, trying to change what she says were cruel conditions that caused his mental health to deteriorate.

In Toronto, Jennings’ mother, Terri Foley, was beside herself. She was used to worrying about Jennings — with his ADHD and other issues as a child, as well as a number of jail stints, she had already been through a lot with him, and wasn’t about to stop advocating for him, even from afar.

She began calling anyone and everyone at HMP and in the Department of Justice until she reached someone in charge.

“I was told, ‘Oh my God, no, no, no, the SHU is nothing like that. He’s got treatment, no one would ever deny him his medication, he’s got people to talk to. Justin is refusing everything,’” Foley says. “I was asking, well why is he saying those awful things? Why do I hear death in his voice?”

Foley took to sleeping with her cellphone switched off at night. She was afraid to get a call letting her know the worst had happened, and she wanted to be awake and fully alert when she received that news.

Jennings, now 34, suffered trauma at a young age and was diagnosed early with ADHD. As a result, he was labelled a problem child in school, his mother says, and received significant intervention.

He was assessed in Grade 3 as an intellectual fit for enrichment classes, but his behaviour wouldn’t allow it. People did see the good in him, Foley says: in elementary school, he’d often be called to the developmental needs classroom to help calm an agitated classmate when no one else could, and he loved to do it, holding their hand and speaking to them gently.

Foley says her approach to parenting Jennings rested in common sense. When he did something wrong, he knew it. When he did something right, she made a mountain of praise out of a molehill, rewarding him with a balloon in his bedroom and encouraging him to fill the room with balloons.

There was a time when Foley, with three other children, allowed Jennings to go into foster care for respite purposes, and to get him on the fast track to certain programming that would help him. It’s a decision she still struggles with, and speaks of how it broke her heart.

“I’ve seen Justin go in there and come out. The last couple times, I saw a broken man. As a mother, my heart just can’t heal.” — Terri Foley, Justin Jennings' mother

Through the years, Jennings has never been afraid to own up to his wrongdoings, Foley says.

“He never lies to me. Not even when he got in the worst trouble,” she explains. “He will always own up to it and pay the consequences, but what he took in jail wasn’t just the consequences. It was absolutely torture.

“I’ve seen Justin go in there and come out. The last couple times, I saw a broken man. As a mother, my heart just can’t heal.”

Jennings, as his mom says, has no trouble admitting to his lengthy criminal record, which includes convictions for possessing stolen property, assault, resisting arrest and causing a disturbance, and he has been in custody on and off since 2005.

He acknowledges he has trouble managing his temper and a problem with alcohol, and says he is still dealing with the trauma of his childhood as well as the death of two close friends.

In January 2017 he was serving time at HMP for charges related to dangerous driving, weapons, drugs, and attempting to evade police when he assaulted another inmate. Jennings was speaking to his girlfriend, Alyssa Dodd, through a glass partition in the visiting room when surveillance footage captured him suddenly standing up, approaching an inmate three seats away and punching him in the head before putting him in a headlock and throwing him to the floor. About a dozen correctional officers are seen entering and taking Jennings away, and he was punished with a seven-day period in disciplinary segregation, known to inmates as the hole.

“In the cell, there’s a mattress on a concrete block on the floor, and there’s a toilet and a sink. That’s it.” — Justin Jennings

Where the SHU is administrative segregation, the hole is disciplinary. Inmates can be housed in the SHU for a variety of reasons, including medical observation, suicidal precautions, personal protection or because they are deemed to put the safety of others at risk based on their behaviour or incompatibility issues. Inmates in the hole can spend up to 23 hours a day in their cell with minimal contact with others, while those in administrative segregation have less cell time and could have more contact with other inmates, depending on the circumstances. In both areas, the lights are left on 24 hours a day.

“In the cell, there’s a mattress on a concrete block on the floor, and there’s a toilet and a sink. That’s it,” Jennings says. “All you can do is lie down and think.”

After an altercation with another inmate, Jennings was returned to the hole for 10 more days, then moved into the SHU. After 30 days, he said, he was expecting a review of his situation by a panel of professionals, but walked into the room to find two high-level HMP officials who told him it would be 30 more days before another review would happen.

“I knew when I walked in there and saw the two of them that I wasn’t getting out,” Jennings says.

Her Majesty’s Penitentiary in St. John’s, July 2018.
Her Majesty’s Penitentiary in St. John’s, July 2018.

In the next month, the mental breakdown happened. Jennings remembers pacing in his cell, sweating, crying and unable to breathe. He says a guard arranged to bring him to see the prison psychologist after remarking that he seemed to be losing his mind.

The psychologist, Sam Martin, also testified at Jennings’ sentencing hearing, saying Jennings had entered his office in such a state of anxiety that he was unable to communicate for half an hour. Martin wrote a letter to prison officials, requesting that Jennings be removed from the SHU because he was at risk of a breakdown.

“I had just had enough of this,” Martin told the court, explaining he had only ever written a similar letter once before. “This gentleman was in a frenzied state and was out of control of his own mental stability.”

That night, Jennings earned another assault charge. Surveillance footage shows him on the phone in the SHU and appearing to grow agitated before hanging up and approaching two other inmates who were watching TV nearby. He’s seen punching one of them in the face, throwing him to the floor and kicking him before officers take him away.

Jennings says the inmate had been mocking him for crying.

Martin’s letter wasn’t heeded. Prison officials were consulted, including psychiatrist Dr. David Craig, who didn’t recommend transferring Jennings out of the SHU and into the Waterford Hospital. Jennings is “clearly the author of his own misfortune,” Craig wrote in a letter to other staff, explaining “HMP is, by its very nature, a punitive institution, not a therapeutic one,” and staff has a duty to protect inmates.

Jennings was transferred to the hospital two months later, after a judge granted his request for a psychiatric assessment.

From hospital, Jennings wrote another letter, this one on loose-leaf paper in small, neat printing. He addressed it to HMP Supt. Owen Brophy, and wrote of the assaults and of what he believed drove him to that point, explaining that he felt he was marked as a troublemaker in prison and denied programming even before they had happened.

“Now I am currently at the Waterford Hospital receiving treatment and I am doing much better,” Jennings wrote. “I’m finally getting the help I always wanted and feeling much better about myself. I am writing you this letter so you can see and understand my story. All I’m asking for is to have a fair and fighting chance like everybody else. I’m not asking for any special treatment. Once my 30 days (in hospital) are up I am not sure what is going to happen. I was hoping you would be able to contact me and let me know if there is anything you would be able to do about my circumstances.”

Once Jennings returned to HMP, he went back to the SHU. He was also denied the anti-anxiety medication prescribed by another forensic psychiatrist while he was in hospital. HMP Assistant Supt. Diana Gibbons testified in court that prison officials were not privy to that psychiatrist’s report, and a second opinion from Craig resulted in the prescription not being filled.

Over the next number of months, Jennings spent more time in segregation and earned himself another assault charge last March, after he lashed out at an inmate on the prison’s 4B unit, punching him in the head while the man was on the phone. In that instance, Jennings had asked prison officials not to place him on 4B — seen by some as an informal protective custody unit — because he was having mental health issues. He told them he felt like he would “snap and do something.”


Justin Jennings and his girlfriend, Alyssa Dodd recently visited The Telegram and recorded a podcast with reporters Tara Bradbury and Barb Sweet. 


Giving her evidence, Gibbons spoke of the overcrowding in HMP and explained how prison staff is often limited by the facility itself. Disciplinary segregation is overused in the prison due to issues with the building and often a lack of a better option, she said. She explained Jennings had been put in segregation numerous times for various reasons stemming from his behaviour, including the assaults, and his risk to others. He had also refused to go on 4B numerous times, she said. The province has made the same assertions in its defence to a civil suit filed by Jennings’ lawyer, Ken Mahoney, in which he is seeking compensation for the suffering Jennings endured in prison.

“(Jennings’) prolonged detention in solitary confinement and in the SHU constitutes negligence as well as psychological, mental and emotional abuse and has directly resulted in ongoing injury and harm to (him),” Mahoney says in court documents, insisting the province is liable for those damages.

The province denies Jennings was unfairly segregated and says HMP staff followed correct protocol, noting Jennings’ violent behaviour and the opinions of Dr. Craig. It also denies that Jennings’ mental health deterioration was caused by prison conditions. In defence documents filed last February, lawyer David Rodgers says Gibbons has the discretion to place inmates where she feels is appropriate.

“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." — Provincial Court Judge James Walsh

“This involves a balancing of multiple concerns, often in very complex and difficult situations,” the document reads. “One of these concerns is the mental health of inmates in the SHU, but this cannot be looked at in isolation. Ultimately, (Gibbons) must make decisions on placement of inmates based on the overall situation and concerns of the prison, including the need to protect other inmates from harm, which is a constant concern with (Jennings) based on his continued pattern of violent behaviour towards other inmates when he is released into the general population.”

Provincial Court Judge James Walsh had problems with the idea that anyone was protected by keeping Jennings in segregation despite his mental health deterioration and the request from the prison psychologist to have him removed.

“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 in May when he released Jennings from custody after sentencing him to time served for the assaults, a dangerous driving charge and breaches of court orders.

Jennings had pleaded guilty to all of the charges.

Walsh had harsh words for the penitentiary — saying the case had highlighted its “complete inadequacy” for inmates and staff — and called the evidence presented by Jennings, Martin and Gibbons during Jennings’ sentencing hearing “disturbing.”

Walsh accepted that Jennings had been appropriately disciplined for the assaults, but said Craig had inappropriately discontinued Jennings’ medication. Walsh called the policy of mixing inmates who have mental health issues with those who do not “a recipe for disaster,” and questioned why Jennings’ own warning that he could “snap” was ignored, among other things.

Changes to HMP “can’t come soon enough,” Walsh said, ultimately ruling that the decisions made by prison staff and their excessive use of segregation justified giving Jennings a reduced sentence.

“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,” Walsh said.

Since his release from custody, Jennings has been working to reintegrate in the community and trying hard, with Dodd’s support, to turn his life around and to avail of any and all programming he can access. He’s not kidding himself about having a smooth road ahead and admits there have been some trying times already, but he recognizes his triggers now more than ever and does what he can to avoid them.

In HMP, Jennings took up art along with journal writing as a way to keep grounded, teaching himself to sketch with the help of art books that Dodd brought to him and images of celebrities gleaned from magazines.

In court, he displayed well-executed pencil drawings of actor Robert Downey Jr. and boxer Mike Tyson that he completed behind bars, and he has added others to that: sketches of Dodd and of Marilyn Monroe and of shaded tattoo-style roses and script.

He’s interested in one day exhibiting his work and in learning to paint, he says, especially because of the less precise, more intuitive nature of it. He feels it could be a good fit for him.

Jennings is also interested in supporting other ex-inmates who might know exactly where he’s coming from, and he’s got some suggestions for changes to HMP. He’d like to see independent mental health workers stationed inside the prison and available to inmates when needed, and feels a prison ombudsman is a necessity. He understands that not everyone will share his views or have sympathy for criminals enough to advocate for better resources for them.

“I know some people say, ‘Just lock them away,’ but here’s the thing,” he says. “They’re all going to get out eventually. Is it your family you want them to hurt? Do you want them coming out of jail, which is basically a crime college, angry at the world, or a bit better than when they went in?”

Twitter: @tara_bradbury


Get the whole story:

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

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