Taking the stand at provincial court in St. John’s Friday afternoon, inmate Justin Jennings painted a grim picture of life in segregation at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary (HMP).
He told the court of spending 23 hours a day in his cell, listening to other inmates constantly yelling, and seeing them smear feces on themselves and the walls.
Jennings spoke of one time in particular when he felt he was losing his sanity. He paced back and forth in the small space, he said, crying and having trouble breathing.
“Every day you wake up, you want to die to get out of it,” Jennings testified. “That’s all you can do.”
That day, Jennings was taken to see prison psychologist Sam Martin, who also testified. Jennings had anxiety issues, Martin said, and had asked to see him a number of times previously.
“He was brought to my office by guards in a state that would be considered very close to what we call a panic attack,” Martin told the court, adding that Jennings was unable to communicate with him for about 30 minutes.
That visit motivated Martin to write a letter to prison officials, requesting that Jennings be removed from segregation as soon as possible, because he was on his way to having a mental breakdown.
Martin said he had made that type of request only once before in the 8 1/2 years he has been working at HMP, and acknowledged he did not consult anyone on the prison’s medical team before writing the letter.
“In this case you may say I was being a bit naughty, maybe, but I had just had enough of this,” the psychologist told the court.
Jennings, 34, has 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 last month.
The assaults happened at HMP — while Jennings was serving time on convictions for driving, weapons and drug-related offences — and prosecutor Dana Sullivan played surveillance video of them for the court. In each one, Jennings appears to suddenly lash out and punch a fellow inmate in the head, unprovoked.
Jennings’ lawyer, Ken Mahoney, is arguing for extra credit for the time Jennings has spent in jail, saying he has spent an excessive and unnecessary amount of time in either disciplinary or administrative segregation in the special handling unit, known to inmates as “the hole.”
Testifying earlier in the day, HMP assistant superintendent Diana Gibbons explained inmates could be housed in the unit for a variety of reasons, including administrative or disciplinary segregation, medical reasons or suicide watch.
Inmates in disciplinary segregation could spend up to 23 hours a day in their cell with minimal contact with other inmates, Gibbons said, while those in administrative segregation — reserved for inmates who are believed to put the safety of others at risk based on their behaviour and information given to prison staff — have less cell time and could have more contact with others, depending on the circumstances.
While there are only five cells on the unit, Gibbons said there are currently 15 inmates being housed there.
In response to Mahoney’s questions, she agreed there is an overuse of disciplinary segregation at HMP, due to issues with the facility.
Too many inmates
Martin told the court there should never be more than one person to a cell on the special handling unit (SHU), in his opinion, given the range of complex issues experienced by the inmates there. There are more than 170 inmates at HMP, he said, and the prison would be better managed if there were 140 or less.
The issue with segregation, Martin said, is the lack of contact and stimulation. The average inmate will start to break down after about the sixth day, he told the court.
Still, Martin said, many inmates have told him that they would prefer total isolation than being housed in tight quarters in the special handling unit. Jennings is one of them.
“I was there for discipline, and there were people there for medical needs, schizophrenic people, yelling all the time,” Jennings testified. “I’d rather be by myself than with those people. They were driving me insane.
“I started asking for programming (counselling). They kept saying no. I was spiralling out of control, and it was getting worse and worse and worse.”
Martin used the word “torture” at one point in his testimony.
“In your opinion, the length of time Mr. Jennings had spent in the SHU, had it become a situation of torture?” Mahoney asked him.
“How do you define that word?” Martin replied. “Specific to this gentleman, he was in a frenzied physical state, and he was out of control of his own mental stability at that time.”
Jennings wasn’t removed from segregation after Martin sent his letter. Gibbons said she consulted with other prison officials and members of the medical team, including psychiatrist Dr. David Craig. Craig met with Jennings and didn’t have any concerns or recommend sending him to the Waterford hospital, so Jennings was sent back to the SHU, Gibbons said.
At another time, Gibbons said a prescription for anti-anxiety medication given to Jennings by a forensic psychiatrist during a stay at the Waterford was not filled, based on a second opinion from Craig.
Gibbons explained Jennings had been put in segregation numerous times for various reasons stemming from his behaviour in prison and his risk to others, including the assaults, which she described as serious. He had also refused on multiple occasions to go to one of the regular units, she said.
Mahoney questioned Gibbons about “A Review of the Use of Disciplinary Segregation,” a report submitted to the province last fall by a committee.
Among the 18 recommendations in the report was a suggestion that the maximum time an inmate can spend in segregation be reduced from 15 days to 10.
Mahoney alleges Jennings spent more than 15 days at a time in disciplinary segregation.
“I will tell you that report was released, government accepted it, but nothing has been done with it yet. No policy has been created,” Gibbons testified. “I did take some of the recommendations out of that that I felt were plausible and doable and I implemented them.”
When contacted by The Telegram, a spokeswoman for the province’s Department of Justice and Public Safety said this is not the case.
“A new policy was put in place last fall, based on the recommendations, and is implemented at HMP,” she wrote in an email.
In a written statement later in the afternoon, after being told of Gibbons’ testimony by members of the media, the spokeswoman said the government recognizes a potentially damaging effect of segregation on inmates, and wants to limit its use and turn to rehabilitation measures instead.
“In October 2017, the Department of Justice and Public Safety introduced changes to the guidelines to disciplinary segregation practices for inmates in Newfoundland and Labrador. Some of these changes have been implemented by the superintendent of prisons,” she wrote.
When asked to clarify whether the changes were implemented as a result of a government policy change or prison officials’ initiative, the spokeswoman said, “As I indicated, a new policy was introduced in October 2017. Changes were implemented based on the recommendations of the report.”
She didn’t clarify who implemented the changes, and said they are operational but not yet included in a written policy.
Lawyers, inmates, HMP staff, mental health advocates and others have long called for a new prison and changes to HMP procedures, specifically when it comes to “the hole.”
Lawyer Mark Gruchy has expressed problems with it, saying he believes the prison is not equipped to handle inmates with mental health issues.
Lawyer Lynn Moore, in a lawsuit again the province on behalf of inmate Kenny Green, asked a Supreme Court judge last year to order the government to stop operating HMP on the grounds its lack of facilities are inhumane. That application was denied, but Green — a convicted killer who was seriously injured in an attack in the prison’s chapel in 2014 — received a $45,000 settlement of the lawsuit from the province out of court.
Correctional officers have spoken to media outlets on the condition of anonymity, expressing concerns about overpopulation, an outdated and crumbling facility, and safety issues at the prison.
Jennings’ case will return to court May 3.