Inmates leave HMP 'far worse off than when they went in,' says Calvin Kenny

Calvin Kenny knows he likely won't get much sympathy, but says policies and procedures need to change at Her Majesty's Penitentiary.

Lawyer Mark Gruchy calls for independent oversight of the SHU — special handling unit, aka 'the Hole'

Calvin Kenny, 26, is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to manslaughter, arson, robbery and unlawful confinement, in relation to the killing of Steven Miller in Conception Bay South in July 2016. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

Calvin Kenny knows he likely won't get much sympathy for what he calls mistreatment at Newfoundland and Labrador's largest men's jail.

Kenny, 26, of Fermeuse, on Newfoundland's Southern Shore, will soon be sentenced to federal prison time for killing a man in Conception Bay South last year. But before he's sent away, he has a lot to say about Her Majesty's Penitentiary.

"Most of the people won't want to hear a word that comes out of my mouth and I understand that," Kenny said in an interview with CBC News this month.

Kenny spoke in a small room inside HMP that, on this particular day, was humid and hot. Sweat beaded on his forehead as two correctional officers looked on while he laid out his claims. 

"But they got to realize that most of the inmates are going to be released back into the public and in this prison, they're going to be released far worse off than when they went in."

Calvin Kenny, seen in a black muscle shirt, beat Kenny Green during a riot and attack at Her Majesty's Penitentiary in February 2014. Paul Connolly, seen in a white T-shirt, struck Green with a piece of church pew. (CBC)

Kenny is alleging that he has been kept in the special handling unit (SHU) for long periods of time without officials giving him a reason — a situation Kenny claims doesn't happen at federal institutions. 

"I was locked in the SHU — locked in my cell in the SHU — for 20 to 22 hours a day for four months straight," he said.

The SHU — or 'the Hole,' as it's unaffectionately known — is a section of the prison that houses inmates who are deemed a risk to themselves or others.

Critics say it's a place where people are often forgotten, and can be toxic to anyone who lands there. 

SHU houses mentally ill inmates: Kenny

According to Kenny, he often shared the space with mentally ill inmates who were unaware of what was happening around them.  

"They don't understand how to clean themselves, they don't understand how to ask for help and they don't understand if what's being done to them is right or wrong," Kenny said.

You can't put a social animal in a box with lights on them 24/7 and expect something good to come from it.- Mark Gruchy

One inmate who Kenny said has "severe mental health issues" was put in a suicide gown (a tear-resistant smock) in order to be placed in a cell with a suicidal inmate to make more room, he claimed.

The mentally ill inmate, Kenny said, was not suicidal but was not in his right mind to contest what was happening to him. 

He made it clear he has no issues with correctional officers he sees on a daily basis, but is calling into question policies and procedures in place at HMP. 

Recently, Kenny said, he was allowed up from the SHU and hasn't caused any trouble in the prison's general population.

Mark Gruchy is a criminal defence lawyer in St. John's. (Mark Cumby/CBC)

Mark Gruchy, a defence lawyer in St. John's, has represented many people who have spent extended periods of time in the SHU.

"I've heard things like people talking about seeing things in the walls and very dramatic things," Gruchy said.

"You have people who are severely mentally ill, psychotic, and some of these poor people don't even know where they are or what's going on."

Gruchy wants to see a civilian oversight group created for places like the SHU.

"You can't put a social animal in a box with lights on them 24/7 and expect something good to come from it."

Kenny, meanwhile, credits HMP's psychologist but says the prison is not equipped to deal with complex mental health issues. 

He says inmates fear coming forward with mental health issues because of the consequences.

"We got to be able to talk to each other," Kenny said. "People here are afraid to say anything because they don't want to go to segregation. I've been there and it's by far the worst place I've been in my life." 

Kenny added that the number of programs and services for rehabilitation at HMP pale in comparison to those at a federal level.

Mental health services important, officials say

CBC News asked Justice and Public Safety officials for comment on the allegations levelled by Kenny, and received a statement back.

The department said it cannot discuss his particular case due to privacy and safety concerns. However, it said having appropriate mental health services and programs is important.

"There is a process in place for inmates to express concerns or make complaints to corrections staff at HMP," the statement said.

"If the inmate is not satisfied with the outcome at the superintendent level, he or she can take the complaint to the Office of the Citizens' Representative."

The department noted that there are two psychiatrists, a psychologist, two nurses and a nurse practitioner at HMP. As well, officials said the department partners with Canadian Mental Health Association to deliver a number of programs there.

What to do with problem inmates?

Kenny's first foray in the prison world was at the age of 21, after being convicted of trafficking cocaine. 

Since then, he's lived most of his adult life behind bars — having participated in a violent riot and attack in the prison's chapel, and later pleading guilty to killing Steven Miller. 

When confronted with the thought that some people may want his punishment to be harsh, Kenny is quick to point to the long-term consequences. 

"A lot of people are going to think that. And a lot of their feelings are justified, of course they are," he said.

"They have to challenge the people productively to change their behaviour. Not just stick them in a hole. Now it's your release day … [and] oh he's cured. How is that even logical?"

A correctional officer walks down the halls of Her Majesty's Penitentiary in St. John's. The provincial jail is a mix of medium and maximum security and was built in 1859. (CBC)

Inmates like Kenny, who have violent histories, present challenges for correctional institutions right across Canada.

"I think there's a lot of difficultly figuring out how to deal with the individuals who are then placed there. It's very complicated," said Rose Ricciardelli, associate professor in the department of sociology at Memorial University. 

Ricciardelli is the author of a number of books on incarceration in Canada.

She said there needs to be more resources in place for correctional institutions to be able to place risky inmates back in general population. 

'Torture' by UN standards, Senator says

Senator Kim Pate visited the province this month to speak at a public meeting held by the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies. Pate was executive director of that organization prior to her appointment to the Senate.

During her visit, Pate said she asked for local prison policies and procedures, to create a handbook for inmates and staff. 

"We know that in many provincial and territorial jails and local lockups often because of limited staff or increasing numbers prisoners are sometimes held for 24 hours a day," said Pate.

Pate stressed that United Nations considers any more than three hours spent in a cell daily, for more than 14 days, torture.

Calvin Kenny says he'll likely go back to being a crab fisherman once he is released from a federal institution. (Facebook)

As for Kenny, he's looking forward to his time in federal prison, where he says he has worked as a barber in the mornings and a tutor in the evenings. 

"I want to get this done. I want to go back to the Southern Shore with my family," he said

"I got my life messed up beyond recognition. I got to fix it. But I have to do the time that's handed to me." 

Admitted killer Calvin Kenny is among several voices calling for change in a Newfoundland prison. 5:01

About the Author

Ariana Kelland


Ariana Kelland is a reporter with the CBC Newfoundland and Labrador bureau in St. John's.