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‘It was just a warehouse,’ former inmate says of Her Majesty’s Penitentiary

It has been a long struggle for Darren Wells to get his life back on track. He recently sat down with a Telegram reporter at a coffee shop to describe the programs and people that have helped him in his rehabilitation.
It has been a long struggle for Darren Wells to get his life back on track. He recently sat down with a Telegram reporter at a coffee shop to describe the programs and people that have helped him in his rehabilitation. - Sam McNeish

Darren Wells says HMP needs more supports to prepare inmates for life on the outside

Darren Wells considers himself lucky.

A former prison inmate, he’s fought demons to get to where he is and starts every day by helping others in need and giving back to those who took a chance on him.

Wells has been a part of the Right Turn Investments initiative operated by Lori Rogers and Roxanne Cullen since 2012, shortly after his release following multiple stints in prison.

When Rogers and Cullen ask, Wells is more than willing to volunteer his time and skills to help prepare an apartment for someone who is likely battling issues and stereotypes the same as he has done for most of his adult life.

Wells served four different federal sentences at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary (HMP) in St. John’s dating back to the early 1990s.

He was in and out of HMP for years, starting with a 30-month sentence for a variety of charges including parole violations.

“I suffered from an addiction to opioids. When it was huge, I committed crimes like shoplifting and property offences to support my addiction,” Wells said.

“While I was on parole, I had more charges added and an additional two years was added to my sentence and they sent me back to HMP. I got out and four years later I was involved in shoplifting and picked up three more years for that and more breaches. It had just snowballed out of control for me until I finally finished up in the middle of 2011.”

Wanting help, and tired of the same old, same old, he participated in a variety of programs trying to get clean. But each time, he felt there was no real depth to the rehabilitation program, and he relapsed.
“In 2009, I finally did get the help I needed,” he said. “I wanted to do the program in the institution, but at that time it was the same old program they had for years — a regular addictions program. It never changed, as you would see the same thing all the time and it got old really fast.”

Wells said when he heard about the Justice Project, offered through the Mental Health Association, he got involved in that, attending sessions three times a week.

He said Rick Parsons, his counsellor, was amazing. He saw him from 2009-11, and once he got out of prison, the followup program made the difference.

“He dealt with me for eight months after I got out. Then he hooked me up with Dr. (Nizar) Ladha at the Waterford (Hospital). I also got help from N.L. Housing to get a place to live, and regular appointments with addictions counsellors at the hospital,’’ he said.

“They did things for me this time and opened doors for me that I never thought could happen in order to get the help I needed.”

IN DEPTH: The Telegram's full report on HMP

A diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder was eye-opening.

“I knew there was something wrong, and once I was diagnosed it was easier to get help and get myself straightened out,” Wells said. “The after-care I got, it was amazing. It is so hard for people getting out, with nothing and nobody. It can be detrimental to your treatment.

“If you don’t get any help, you will be back. If you don’t have anywhere to lay your head, it’s especially hard, so you wind up going back towards what you knew before.”

Wells said he has been clean since 2011 and is working hard to stay that way.

He said there were times when trying not to relapse was brutal, but with the help of the methadone program for 13 years, he hasn’t had one bad urinalysis — an accomplishment he is clearly proud of, as his smile shows.

“That can’t happen to me. I am not going to let it happen to me again. I am going to put my heart and soul into it and make sure it doesn’t,” he said describing the thought processes he draws on to make responsible decisions.

“I finally have got all my medications regulated so now I understand what was going on with me.”

Wells said one of the toughest things he battled at HMP was trying to be mentally healthy.

“There was no help on that front,” he says. “I did every program they had to offer in there and it didn’t help. Everyone wants to get off the range and into a program, but many of them didn’t do what they were supposed to. Once the psychologist down there got me into the Justice Program, I started to see a change.”

Wells said when he read an article in The Telegram recently on the woodworking being done at HMP, it blew him away and he’s glad to see there are trades programs starting to be offered to give inmates an opportunity to learn something that could help them get a job when they are released.

“When I was there, there was nothing. It was just a warehouse for us. If there were things like masonry, stonework, carpentry, school classes, that would make a huge difference. I had a few computer courses and I found those great, but more is needed,” he said.

“If they had more trades and inmates could walk out certified through the College of the North Atlantic, as an example, I think that would help. As it stands now, the only way you get these things are if you are going away for more than 24 months and sent to an institution in the Maritimes. They offer these things there and a whole bunch more programs.”

Wells had a few trade skills when he was incarcerated, including autobody, and he was trained as a chef. He said his biggest downfall was having too much time on his hands.
“They say an idle mind is the devil’s workshop. It creates havoc,” he said.

“I always had an addictive personality where I always wanted to try things.”

Wells said his addiction was something that happened by choice. He was living in Cambridge, Ont., where he had a wife and had started a family.

He came home for a three-week vacation and went to see his brother, who he said was an opioid addict at the time.

“I couldn’t understand what why he would allow himself to get like that. I wanted to understand, so I tried it, and just like that, I was addicted.

“I battled it when I went back, but I didn’t win. My marriage went south as the result of it and here I was with two kids, a son and a daughter. It was tough on all of them. I have mended fences with my kids, but it wasn’t easy.”

He said unlike so many people who spend extended periods of time incarcerated, he was fortunate to have the support of his family and that support helped him to finally get his life straightened out and keep him focused.

He said one of the problems with HMP is that inmates convicted for minor crimes are in with people serving time for serious offences.

“They are violent offenders that need to be in a better facility more capable of housing them,” he said of the latter group. “They can be put in the SHU for a period of time, but they are still there once they are put back in population. It is a warehouse down there and these violent offenders are there for months at a time. They are dangerous people.”

Building a new prison with the proper cells and units to house these inmates is essential, he said.

Still, he said there have been some improvements at HMP.

“Security there now is amazing. They have high-tech cameras everywhere. … The staff is now improved as well. They are more prepared to deal with issues than they ever have, and the institution is changing for the better because of it.”

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