Prison segregation policy called recipe for disaster in ruling on assault charges

A judge at provincial court in St. John's on Thursday said he was releasing an inmate at HMP on time served because of the way he was treated there.

Justin Jennings released on time served, after assaulting 3 other inmates at Her Majesty's Penitentiary

Justin Jennings says his mental health issues worsened during his incarceration at Her Majesty's Penitentiary. (Glenn Payette/CBC)

A judge at provincial court in St. John's on Thursday said he was releasing an inmate at Her Majesty's Penitentiary after time served because of the way he was treated while incarcerated there.

Justin Jennings pleaded guilty to three assaults on other inmates, but his defence lawyer argued that he had mental health issues made worse by his stay in prison.

Improper placement in unit

Judge James Walsh said prison officials were aware of Jennings's deteriorating mental state, but sent him to the special handling unit, where he became agitated and attacked two inmates on separate occasions. He attacked the other inmate in the visiting area.

The incidents happened from January 2017 to December 2017.

Provincial court judge James Walsh was critical of the way inmates are treated in the special handling unit of HMP. (Glenn Payette/CBC)

Walsh noted that when Jennings was sent for an assessment at the Waterford Hospital, he was placed on an anti-depressant, but then taken off it by the prison psychiatrist Dr. David Craig.

Jennings attacked an inmate after he stopped getting the drug.

Recipe for disaster

At trial a letter from Craig was put into evidence, saying, "Jennings was the author of his own misfortune. HMP is punitive, not therapeutic."

However, Walsh said he failed to see how Craig's decision would protect inmates, and that the unit is a mixture of inmates with and without mental disorders, making it a recipe for disaster.

The judge said the excessive use of segregation, the denial of programming and the removal of medication in Jennings case justified giving him a sentence of time served.

Walsh said that over the last several months, Jennings has taken steps to turn his life around with the help of a psychologist.

Jennings has been placed on two years' probation, and because of a driving offence he's also not allowed to drive for two years.

Not a 'news flash' for minister 

Meanwhile, the province's justice minister says corrections officials are still working on improving segregation.

"The fact is we have a prison that was built before Canada was a nation. That's the reality," Andrew Parsons told reporters at the House of Assembly.

"The judge saying HMP is inadequate is not exactly a news flash to me. I've been living with this and dealing with this."

A review of disciplinary segreation released in October resulted in 18 recommendations to improve the way inmates are held — including limiting the number of days they spend segregated.

Parsons said 14 of those recommendations have been implemented and the remaining four require legislative change and funding. 

"We monitor all these cases and will continue to work with the corrections staff," he said.

"I have full faith in all our institutions and facilities for the well-being of inmates."

With files from Glenn Payette