Prison a ‘harrowing’ ordeal for Warrawong teenager James Jennings

HARROWING: James Jennings departs Wollongong Courthouse on Thursday after almost a month behind bars.
HARROWING: James Jennings departs Wollongong Courthouse on Thursday after almost a month behind bars.

A Warrawong teenager’s prison term has been slashed on appeal after a judge heard of his “harrowing” experience of assault and unwanted sexual advances while behind bars.

James Jennings, 19, fronted Wollongong District Court on Thursday weighing just 49kgs, with a bandage on his right arm covering an injury from his first night in prison, almost a month ago. 

His lawyer, Elizabeth Parkes, told the court Jennings had shed 11kgs since then, and had scarcely left his cell for fear of unwanted attention from other inmates.

The court heard Jennings had been moved between four prison facilities at Silverwater, Nowra and finally Unanderra, as part of efforts to keep him safe.

“At all of those places he’s been subject to physical and verbal abuse,” said Ms Parkes, seeking a reduction to Jennings’ sentence at court on Thursday. 

“His first night he was the subject of unwanted sexual attention from his cellmate that he had to endure for most of the night, and he had to withstand those advances.”

That incident was the subject of a police investigation, Ms Parkes said.   

“Suffice to say, he’s a very frightened young man who’s had a harrowing just short of four weeks in custody,” she said.  

“He’s not leaving his room because of the attention he attracts from other inmates.

“This has specifically deterred him from ... committing [another] offence.”

Last month Jennings, a suspended learner driver, was ordered to serve a 12-month prison term, with a non-parole period of four months, after he sparked two separate police pursuits. 

Police were forced to abandon the first chase when Jennings accelerated to 120kmh in a 50kmh zone at Oak Flats on September 14. 

He piqued the interest of patrolling police again the next day, this time crossing onto the wrong side of Government Road at Oak Flats and causing his white Holden Commodore to become airborne on a pedestrian crossing outside Balarang Public School, about 8am. Police again abandoned the pursuit due to public safety concerns. They later cornered the Commodore in a carpark at Deakin Reserve, only for Jennings to slam into a police car and drive on. He was arrested at his home, then in Oak Flats, later that day.

Judge Andrew Haesler noted Jennings was affected by methylamphetamine at the time. 

“He … was for all intents and purposes, out of control,” he said. 

“He said what he did was stupid. I think stupid is an understatement.” 

Jennings became tearful on Thursday as details of his time in custody were aired in court. 

The judge refused his lawyer’s request to count his suffering in prison as a form of additional punishment that could cancel out the need for him to serve the remainder of his term.

But the judge ultimately found the time served had been sufficient, and Jennings could serve the remainder in the community, while undergoing a drug rehabilitation program and enacting a mental health plan. 

“Thankyou,” Jennings said. 

The judge considered a report which showed Corrective Services held concerns for Jennings’ safety while in custody.

“I’m told and accept that his time in custody has been worse that he or - I suspect – the [sentencing] magistrate could have expected,” Judge Haesler said. 

”The courts cannot ignore the impact of custody on a person. Mr Jennings is a slight, short young man who perhaps in another age might have got a job as a jockey.

“But he has suffered for every minute that he’s been in custody. He’s been assaulted, he’s been sexually harassed. He is presently … in a facility which is designed to allow people to be released to work in the community, but effectively he’s been locked into his cell for the entire time he’s been in custody.”

“Courts have to harden their hearts in the face of serious offending and impose custodial sentences when required. But court can … in accordance with the purposes of sentences … also display mercy. 

“Your behaviour is not deserving of leniency, but if the the purposes of jail have not had an impact on you … they never will. I'm prepared to take that risk.” 

Jennings was placed on a two-year good behaviour bond and remains disqualified from driving for another four years. 

He walked free from the courthouse Thursday afternoon, accompanied by his grandmother and several other supporters.