“Hell House” is a piece of literary journalism that takes readers where most journalists won’t tread.

“Hell House” by Nicholas Hune-Brown, Toronto Life, December 2010

By Erica Lenti

The first time I saw the Toronto Jail—better known by city dwellers as “the Don”—I was 17, on my way downtown in the passenger seat of my mom’s truck. From the outside, the red-bricked building looked like a private school, hidden behind chain-link fences and under-watered fields. As we approached the jail, a pungent odour wafted into the open windows of our car—a sewer stench, rising with the cool air off the Don River. It would seem we were driving past a garbage dump. “No, that’s just the smell of the jail over there, honey,” my mom said. I felt sick.

So, when Nicholas Hune-Brown referenced the thick scent of feces and vomit (and, occasionally, in respite, pot) of the Don in “Hell House: Inside the Don Jail,” I experienced déjà vu, a reminder of the odour that filled our car just months before the story hit newsstands. While I never stepped foot inside the now-defunct jail, the drive-by aroma was proof enough of the Don’s poor conditions.

A National Magazine Awards silver medal winner, Hell House chronicles the state of one of North America’s worst former prisons. Hune-Brown did what I never would. He went inside the jail, confronted the smells that lingered at the building’s curb and disseminated the untold stories of those society has deemed unworthy: criminals, the mentally ill, addicts. Inside, Hune-Brown recounted cruelty, assault and murder—a glimpse into a degraded institution just years before its closure.

On first read, “Hell House” gets the blood pumping. Less like a magazine feature and more like a horror story, the story’s recollection of Jeff Munro—a mentally ill overnight inmate—and his eventual death at the hands of other detainees could easily have been plucked out of the American Horror Story: Asylum series. Scenes are rife with disturbing imagery, the description of a man beaten so terribly his own family doesn’t recognize him, for instance, or toilets that remain un-flushed throughout the night. By its conclusion, goose bumps are inevitable. It’s the kind of story that ends up on theatre screens with a strict R-rating—no little kids allowed.

On second read, the brain actually begins to process those last haunting words: “The city’s primary jail is a dungeon.” And then a sour taste rolls up the throat. This isn’t a horror story. Evan Peters could not have portrayed Jeff Munro. This is real life, and this building resided in the heart of a thriving Toronto neighbourhood.

Breaking down barriers

What is most striking about “Hell House” is its blunt, unforgiving discussion of mental illness and its link to incarceration. Long a taboo topic and a subject of ongoing debate in the media, mental illness has often been shied away from, avoided, ignored. Hune-Brown, instead of turning away, tells the gut-wrenching account of Munro’s final days—the recollection of one man’s experience on behalf of all those suffering with mental illness.

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Munro should have been sent to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health when he was spotted exposing himself on Toronto streets, but instead was arrested and locked into the treacherous special-needs unit of the Don, where three other inmates later beat him to death. But Munro was not alone: “More than a third of all inmates in Ontario’s prisons suffer from some form of mental illness,” Hune-Brown writes. “The Don routinely houses a higher percentage than other Ontario jails.”

Hune-Brown does not tiptoe around this systemic, institutional problem; rather, he confronts it, asks blatantly why Munro, and others, ended up in the uncertainty of the Don, where his fate was stitched in his orange jumpsuit. For his blasé take on mental illness alone, especially amidst a professional climate of ignorance, Hune-Brown should be commended.

The little things

Through his detailed note-taking and reportage, Hune-Brown brings the story of the jail, and Munro, to life. Small details distinguish the feature from fictional horror stories or campfire tales. For one, the inclusion of a scene at a bar and grill across the street from the prison, in which owners charge a $2 fee to hold the phones of Don visitors, relocates the passive reader into the role of journalist, of investigator. These details create a sense of reality about the jail, placing the reader in Hune-Brown’s position: as a visitor, an observer into the horrific conditions of a government-owned and -run institution.

Looking back on “Hell House” six months after the closure of the Don offers a reflection on the state of Canada’s incarceration system. While the jail no longer operates, Hune-Brown’s reportage on the Don takes on a more systemic line of questioning: How should the criminal justice system treat the mentally ill? What is the line between fair treatment of prisoners and cruelty? How should the government be addressing these issues, and why haven’t they yet?

Like all good journalism, “Hell House” is both timely and timeless. Published during the construction of a new Toronto jail, the story touched on a pressing issue. A few years later, “Hell House” still hits a nerve. Hune-Brown takes a stance on what issues the media ought to cover—government accountability, mental health, prisoner rights—issues that remain relevant and, yet still taboo, today.

In the four years since the story was published, the Don has been replaced with the Toronto South Detention Centre. But history is not to be forgotten—and Hune-Brown’s “Hell House” serves as a reminder of the institutional cruelty that once was in Toronto’s core. Perhaps the lingering odour I once smelled through my car windows is long gone, but the Don’s past scars—those of Munro, of mentally ill assault victims—are forever exposed thanks to Hune-Brown.

[[{“fid”:”3541″,”view_mode”:”default”,”fields”:{“format”:”default”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:””,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:””},”type”:”media”,”attributes”:{“style”:”width: 100px; height: 100px; float: left; margin-left: 12px; margin-right: 12px;”,”class”:”media-element file-default”},”link_text”:null}]]Erica Lenti’s work has appeared in This Magazine, Xtra! and The Grid. She is 2014–15 editor of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

Students and non-students alike may write a Great Canadian Literary Journalism story on a worthy piece of literary journalism/long form/feature writing/reportage. If interested, please contact Bill Reynolds, reynolds@ryerson.ca