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Inmate's letter speaks volumes about conditions at HMP in St. John's: friend

Her Majesty’s Penitentiary in St. John’s.
Her Majesty’s Penitentiary in St. John’s. - Glen Whiffen

Justin Jennings says Chris Sutton’s letter to Human Rights Commission illustrates the same things he’s been saying for months

Justin Jennings says reading the letter Chris Sutton wrote to the province’s Human Rights Commission from prison days before his death is almost too much to bear.

“It kills me. It’s so hard to hear,” Jennings told The Telegram Thursday.

Jennings’ emotion comes partly from the fact that Sutton was a friend; partly because he feels he came close to suffering the same fate.

Sutton died in his cell at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary last weekend. His letter, neatly handwritten in pen on loose leaf and dated June 25, appealed for help. He asked about prisoners’ rights to fresh air and exercise, the legal limits of time spent in segregation, and wondered if being held in a room with 24-hour lighting was even legal.

“Here at HMP, segregation is like no other,” Sutton wrote. “It’s by far the worst punishment a person can endure in a Canadian facility.

“I’m seeking change, a change for the people in the future who may be place in such a tough situation. Please help me and send me whatever information possible.”

Related link:

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

Sutton was the fourth inmate to die in prison in this province since last August. Three of them died since April.

Jennings says he came close to taking his life while in segregation in HMP.

“If I hadn’t learned to draw and spent so many hours doing that, keeping my mind busy drawing, I would have been inside my head all that time and that would have been me,” he says.

Jennings, 34, was released from custody in May after a provincial court judge reduced his sentence for three assaults, a charge of driving while prohibited and breaches of court orders due to the conditions he endured inside HMP, particularly in segregation. He told the court of spending long periods of time in “The Hole,” being denied exercise periods or time outdoors, being denied his ADHD and anxiety medication, and requesting help for his mental health issues but being ignored. At one point, the court heard, the prison psychologist had written a letter to prison officials, saying Jennings was at risk of a mental breakdown and requesting he be removed from segregation. It didn’t happen.

Calling the evidence he had heard from Jennings and prison staff “disturbing,” Judge James Walsh had harsh words for the facility structure and the actions of certain staff. Walsh said Jennings’ case highlighted the “complete inadequacy” of the prison, both for inmates and those working there.

“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,” he said.

Jennings equates some of the treatment he received in prison to torture, and says he witnessed the same when it comes to Sutton.

“We’re in there for punishment for breaking the law, but what they’re doing to us is criminal,” he says of HMP staff. “They watch us deteriorate and they don’t do anything.

“Chris was a good guy. He had his troubles, but he didn’t deserve to be treated the way he was.”

Kim Mackay, vice-chair of the province’s Human Rights Commission, was given Sutton’s note and said the recent spate of inmate deaths shows there is a need for better administrative processes to ensure the humane treatment of prisoners, and that inmates with mental health issues are receiving appropriate care.

The Department of Health has announced that it plans to take on oversight of health care for prisoners by the end of next year. Mackay says the current system under the Department of Justice allows prisoners’ medical needs to slip through the cracks, like placing inmates who are mentally ill in segregation.

“The issue I have is that if somebody had cancer and we locked them up, we would not deprive them of treatment,” Mackay said.

Mackay says Sutton’s letter is consistent with comments she’s heard from other inmates, and he demonstrated an understanding of the international laws protecting his rights.

Sutton referenced the United Nations’ Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners — also known as the Nelson Mandela rules — that lay out limitations on the amount of time a prisoner can spend in segregation.

Mackay says she brought concerns over the “grey areas” of segregation policies to provincial Justice Minister Andrew Parson’s attention over a year ago.

While Mackay says small steps have been made to improve policy, such as limiting the time an inmate can spend in segregation to 10 days, she adds that she has heard complaints about the loopholes in these policies. For example, an inmate can be taken out of segregation after one day, then put back in.

Justice Minister Andrew Parsons has ordered an independent review into the four deaths.

Retired police Supt. Marlene Jesso will examine policies, procedures and how corrections staff have responded to the deaths.

Twitter: @tara_bradbury

Get the whole story:

Telegram Special Report explores past, present and future of Her Majesty's Penitentiary

TIMELINE: Her Majesty's Penitentiary through the years

EDITORIAL: Another decade of darkness

SPECIAL REPORT: No federal cash for HMP

PAM FRAMPTON: New prison requires new ways of thinking

Her Majesty's Penitentiary — ‘This house of Hell’

Inmate's letter speaks volumes about conditions at HMP in St. John's: friend

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