“Prison was hell.”
We’re sitting for the first full interview Glen Assoun has granted since his conviction for the murder of Brenda Way in 1999. Assoun spent nearly 17 years in prison, and another four-and-a-half years under strict release conditions until March 2, when he was fully exonerated for the crime.
Court documents released last week show that Assoun was likely framed for the murder, and that police destroyed records that would have demonstrated another man — serial killer Michael McGray — was responsible for the murder.
Now, Assoun is ready to tell his story. I knock on his apartment door, he greets me and directs me to a couch, and he jumps right to it.
“Prison was hell,” he repeats. “It was hell to me every day. Every day. Every day was a struggle. And every day it was a fight. I was in danger at all times. Just all times.
“You know, I was tortured in prison.”
Assoun can’t recall the exact date — he thinks it must have been in 2003 or 2004, when he was at the Dorchester Penitentiary in New Brunswick. He had a prison job working in the wood shop, assembling desks for use by the military. He was paid $5.50 a day, about 50 cents an hour, and the money went into his canteen fund, or to pay for his phone calls.
“I was on my way to work,” Assoun explains. “I stopped to use the phone — I was going to call my brother — about quarter after eight in the morning.
“And the guard come over and he told me to hang up the phone. I said ‘I’m just gonna call my brother’ — you were allowed to use the phone at that time. And he grabbed the phone from me and hung it up on me very aggressively. He told me to go back to my cell. I said, ‘I’m on my way to work.’ He said, ‘go back to your cell, that’s an order.'”
“So, that’s what I did. I went back to my cell. I locked up. It was 8:30 around that time. That’s lockup time anyway. If you don’t have a job, you’re locked in your cell.
“So, after they did their 8:30 count,” he continues, “they came back to my cell, a whole bunch of them, about seven of them [guards]. And they told me to turn around put my hands behind my back.”
He was handcuffed.
“They escorted me down to the hole,” he continues. “And there’s just two doors that go in the hole. And once they opened the first door, I walked through it and then they — one of them was walking ahead of me and he pushed the door open. And when he did that — he just — he drove me against the wall and I bounced off the wall. Now I’m handcuffed behind my back. I landed on the floor. And this guard got on top of me, and he started beating me.”
The memory is obviously painful, and Assoun speaks slowly but forcefully. My transcription software wants to put a period after every word or two.
“He had the counter in his hands. It’s this long,” he motions, his hands about eight inches apart. “It’s a piece of steel they use when they do their rounds. The guard taps a mechanism on the wall, and it counts that he in fact made his round. It was stainless steel, this thing, and he was beating me on the head with it.
“I had a pair of work boots on at the time so they ripped the workbooks off me. And they even cut the jeans off me with a pair of scissors. They had me on my face, on the concrete floor.”
“And he smashed all the bones down here in my ankle,” he says, motioning to his left leg. “They broke all my ankle bones and the bone in the side of my leg.
“It was the worst beating I’ve ever taken my whole life.”
I interrupt to ask if the guards gave him a reason for the beating. “Well, it was for standing up for my innocence, because I was protesting my innocence all the time,” he responds.
So it wasn’t in retribution for something you had done in the prison? “No. No. No,” he replies steadily. “I didn’t do anything. It was just in contrast with protesting my innocence all the time and they just decide, ‘Well, it’s time to teach you a lesson.'”
I had interrupted Assoun’s narrative. We find our way back to it.
“After they did that to me and they took me, they grabbed me and manhandled me and they throw me into a cell. Just on a steel bed, and I landed face-first on the bed. They left me there for probably four hours.
“And then they walked me, on a broken leg, broken bones and everything. They walked me up through the back to a place called Shepody Healing Centre, which is a mental ward that’s just inside of Dorchester. And they put me in there and put me down in the very end cell. It was just a mattress on the floor and they left me there.
“I had no clothes on. I only had on a pair of underwear. They cut the clothes off me, even my shirt. But I was beat hard and they never let me see a doctor. It was 11 days before I got to see a doctor.
“And up in this Shepody Healing Centre, when you get your meals, you have to walk down a long hallway because the meals come up in carts… It was 11 days, and I was dragging my leg down to get my meal, because I was hungry.
“And this nurse that was away on vacation, she came back, and she seen me, and she seen I just had a pair of pyjamas on by then. And she said, ‘Glen, what’s wrong with your foot? It looks all smashed up.’ I said, ‘it is and I need to get to see a doctor, I need to get a cast on it.’ So, long story short, she got me down to see the doctor that afternoon and they did put a cast on it.”
Do you remember her name? I ask.
“I do, he answers, “but I don’t think I want to give it. She was a very nice lady. She always treated me with respect and everything. And if it wasn’t for her I would’ve lost my foot because it was turning black. Gangrene. It was broken and wasn’t being treated.”
Alone in prison
Assoun and I talk for nearly two hours. It’s a wide-ranging conversation, and he doesn’t get defensive or evasive, even when I pry into difficult areas or ask about parts of his past that he isn’t now proud of. This article focuses on Assoun’s prison experience; I’ll return to other matters at a latter date.
We talk a lot about his time in prison.
Assoun felt he was marked from the start. “I had bad media coverage and people judged me on that,” he says. In prison, someone thought to have injured a woman or a child on the outside is often considered a fair target for attack. Assoun says he got in lots of fights, and has scars on his forehead from them.
Once, he was placed in segregation — solitary confinement — for 90 days because prison authorities thought other prisoners were planning to kill him. Another time, Assoun requested to be placed in segregation because he feared the same, and again spent 90 days “in the hole,” with only one hour of exercise in the yard.
When not in the hole, Assoun kept to himself. He developed no friendships — not with other prisoners, not with guards, no sympathetic social worker. He was alone.
It didn’t help that he was in the prison’s face with his claim of innocence, going so far as wearing a baseball cap proclaiming his wrongful conviction.
“I was angry, man,” he says. “I was just angry with what they did to me, and I told anybody who would listen to me that I’m innocent. But to no avail. But I mean — I got a baseball cap one day, and I got a guy who done leather work, and so I got him to sew a piece of leather on front of just a blank hat, and I got him to do in red paint, ‘Wrongfully Convicted, 1998.’ I wore it every day.”
(A jury found Assoun guilty of murder in 1999, but he considers his arrest in 1998 to be the start of the injustices done to him.)
I tell Assoun that other exonerees I’ve spoken with or heard from relate that they found something to grab onto to help them survive their time. For some it’s religion, others it’s yoga or reading books or…
Assoun stares at me blankly.
“I played guitar a lot,” he says after a while. “Every day I had my guitar in my hand and I actually wrote some songs in prison. I’m certainly not a songwriter” — Assoun’s brother Kevin Assoun was a successful musician. “I just woke up one morning and had a verse in my head and I wrote it down — on the back of a grievance actually — and then I went back to sleep. And when I woke up, I had my first prison song. And I put the music to it and stuff like that. And after that I think I wrote about seven or eight more. They were mostly all prison songs but there was one or two that wasn’t.”
Assoun hasn’t played the songs since his release. He says he forgets the words and doesn’t pick up his guitar very often nowadays.
In prison, Assoun did a lot of “cell time,” locking himself in his cell and concentrating on his case, learning about law — “I got myself a Martin’s Criminal Code and I had to get a law dictionary because I couldn’t distinguish the words.”
Otherwise, when not working, studying law, or playing the guitar, he was working out. He’d walk around the prison yard by himself, over and over, round and round, and when he got to a concrete block building at one end, he’d drop and do pushups — 1,000 a day, he tells me.
Prison health is an issue for Assoun. He recalls that when he was first imprisoned, the food was pretty good.
“In 1999, when I was in Springhill, they had real meat on your plate and potatoes and gravy — a healthy meal! You know, and dessert with it and stuff. And when I transferred to Dorchester, the same thing — meals were real good. You would get half a chicken on your plate, and french fries when they were having chicken. And the inmates were, you know, eating real good; some of them used to throw their chicken away out to the seagulls that would be out in yard. A few years later that changed — I’ll guarantee you now an inmate would not throw his chicken away, even if they ever get one.”
Assoun says he witnessed a degradation of prison food. “They took away the real food and they replaced it with processed food. So everything they’re eating in prison is processed, it’s full of salt and trans fat and everything else. Inmates are having heart attacks.”
He should know: he’s had four of them.
The first was soon after he was transferred to Dorchester. He had a terrible burning sensation in his chest, and he suffered through the night, not pushing the panic button in his cell, thinking he must have food poisoning. He never sought or received medical attention, and the next day he felt better.
The second heart attack was on Christmas Eve, 2006. He was working as a labourer, moving 50-pound bags of salt, when the burning sensation returned. He went to the health clinic, where they ran an EKG, but no one at the clinic knew how to read the results.
“[The nurse] called the doctor on the phone. I can hear him — they had the phone on speaker. He said, ‘we think Mr. Assoun is having a heart attack and we want to know if we should take him to the hospital.’ And I can hear the doctor’s words. He said, ‘Assoun is not having a heart attack, and this is Christmas. Don’t don’t call me back tonight.’ And that was it.”
He says he didn’t fully recover for a few days.
Assoun’s third heart incident was in March 2008, when he was in prison in British Columbia.
“I felt the same feeling all over again,” he explains. “But it was more severe this time. So I went down to health care. And it was closed. They closed at four o’clock. So I tried to walk around the track to walk it off and I couldn’t make it around the track. So I went back to my cell and I stayed in my cell. And then I couldn’t even get off my bed. … I went down in the morning and I told the guards. I said, ‘I’m having a heart attack. You’ve got to get me down to health care.'”
It took 15 hours, but Assoun finally was taken to hospital, where he was operated on. “I got a couple of stents; that’s what’s keeping me alive. I had 90% block [in one artery] and a 99% block [in another] for years. Cholesterol filled them up. Bad prison food.”
About a year later, Assoun had a fourth heart incident for which he was hospitalized, but “it subsided.”
Assoun was finally released from prison in November 2014. I’ll pick up the story in a future article
The Halifax Examiner is an advertising-free, subscriber-supported news site. Your subscription makes this work possible; please subscribe.