This university dropout turned his life around in prison. He’s now working on his PhD

January 1, 2022
This university dropout turned his life around in prison. He's now working on his PhD

Mark Watson was wanted by Halifax police for a string of thefts and robberies in early 2008 when he told some family members that he would turn himself in, on one condition.

“I said, ‘If Justin — my cousin — brings me to this crack house that I know about, let me get high one more time and then I promise you, I’ll let you take me to the police station after that,'” said Watson.

At the police station, Watson, then 23, was arrested by a classmate from high school.

“I basically thought my life was over at that point,” he said.

That fateful day was the culmination of years of battling drug addiction and committing crimes to support his habit, but Watson’s prediction was wrong.

Watson at the Atlantic Insitution maximum-security prison in Renous, N.B., in early 2009, left, and early 2010. He was only allowed out of his cell during the day if he worked or went to school. He chose school. (Submitted by Mark Watson)

He spent almost three years incarcerated, but since his release in 2010 from the Atlantic Institution, a maximum security prison in Renous, N.B., he’s earned a community college diploma, an engineering degree, a master’s degree and is now working on his PhD in electrical engineering.

Watson works full-time as an embedded systems engineer and teaches part-time at Dalhousie University in Halifax, a school he dropped out of several times. Dalhousie was even the location of one of the crimes that led to his incarceration.

A drug-fuelled crime spree

The incident was written about in the Feb. 21, 2008, edition of the Dalhousie student newspaper, The Gazette. According to the article, the victim was walking through the campus on Feb. 12, 2008, around 9:30 p.m. AT when someone tugged on his laptop bag and demanded it. The robber had a knife and the student complied.

“Police reported four similar robberies within two days that week,” said the article. “All of those victims reported matching suspect and getaway car descriptions — a white male in his 20s, about 180 pounds and nearly six feet tall, fleeing in a beige four-door car.”

Before Watson was arrested on Feb. 15, 2008, a Halifax Regional Police spokesperson made a prescient comment to The Gazette.

“Usually when there’s a string of robberies like that, they stem from an addiction,” the spokesperson said.

On April 28, 2008, Watson was sentenced for two thefts, four robberies and two break and enters. He was sentenced to 37 months in prison.

How the trouble started

Watson said his struggles began in Grade 10 when he started hanging out with a new crowd. An only child, he said he always longed for acceptance from his peers. He remembers making a conscious decision to “underperform” at academics — he thought his new friends would look at him differently if he did well.

Watson skipped classes, smoked pot and took pills such as Valium, sold drugs and stole from fellow students. He was expelled in both his Grade 10 and 11 years at Sir John A . Macdonald High School — now known as Bay View High School — in Upper Tantallon, N.S.

The school’s vice principal for part of that time was Jeff Lewis. Watson said Lewis expelled him on at least one of the occasions.

This is a drawing Watson did of his cell at the Atlantic Institution. (Robert Short/CBC)

“That broke my heart,” said Lewis. “That was the last thing I wanted to do at that time for him.”

Lewis spent almost three decades in education before retiring earlier this year.

“I really think that we are getting better in education at seeing the essence of what that kid can become, instead of making up our minds about who they are just because of the circumstances that they’re in at the time,” he said.

A vice principal’s message

Lewis said when students were struggling academically, he’d often talk to them and could quickly determine what they were capable of, rather than what their grades said.

He said he had mature conversations with Watson and could tell he had “higher-level thinking abilities.”

“When I worked with parents and students in crisis at high school, I would always say to them, ‘Listen, your child has the essence of whatever it is to do great things, and our job is to continue to believe that and not let up on the idea that that child has potential,” said Lewis, who later wrote a reference letter to help Watson get into university.

“And just because they’re going through what they’re going through today just doesn’t mean that 15 years down the road, things aren’t going to look a whole lot different.'”

Watson is shown with his parents, Bernard James Watson and Roz Watson, in December 2010. This was the first time he saw his parents since he was released from the Atlantic Institution. (Submitted by Mark Watson)

For his Grade 12 year, Watson pulled things together. He credits his first relationship, a girl he was with for a couple of years, for helping keep him stay on track. His grades showed drastic improvement and netted him an award for most improved student.

After Watson graduated high school in 2003, he enrolled at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax. By the end of his first year, his relationship was over. He started using cocaine.

The next few years had recurring patterns: struggling with drug addiction, going to school and dropping out of university — with Watson bouncing back and forth between going to Saint Mary’s and Dalhousie — and working in construction when he wasn’t in school.

‘The beginning of the end’

In the summer of 2007, Watson enlisted in the reserves. Away from home for several months, he cleaned himself up and was feeling great. He again enrolled at Saint Mary’s.

“I came home at the end of summer and I got right back into my old ways with cocaine,” he said. “And eventually, I tried crack for the first time and that was sort of the beginning of the end for me.”

Homeless for a time, he’d sleep in the staircase of an apartment building in Fairview, N.S. He’d rob people and steal to pay for drugs. In February 2008, he was apprehended after the Dalhousie incident and incarcerated at the Burnside jail.

Watson’s mom, Roz, vividly remembers visiting him there. The man in front of her wasn’t the kind-hearted kid who would rescue flies and spiders from their house and place them outside.

“I remember driving back home on the Bedford Highway and just praying to God. I was like, ‘Take my life right at this point or whatever,’ if it means putting him on the right track,” she said.

Watson also spent time at the Springhill jail, a medium-security facility near Amherst, N.S., but was sent to Renous, N.B., in July 2009 after he was suspected of being involved in a violent jail incident.

While he was in the maximum-security prison, Watson was confined to his cell during the day. But if he worked or went to school, he’d be able to get out of his cell, so he chose school.

Finding solace in calculus

On the first day of class, the teacher noticed Watson had an aptitude for math and gave him a calculus textbook. Watson still has the book, which has the words “Atlantic Insitution School. Renous, N.B.” stamped on it.

Prison life wasn’t smooth for Watson. He sometimes got into fights and would be placed in solitary confinement for weeks at a time. Each time in segregation would begin with him not having any of his personal possessions with him. After a day or two, he’d be given his belongings.

“I was always looking forward to getting my math textbook … more than anything else,” said Watson.

His relationship with his parents was fractured.

“They were pretty much at their wit’s end,” he said. “They were still accepting my phone calls though.”

Watson still has the calculus textbook a teacher gave him at the Atlantic Institution. The textbook helped change his life. (Robert Short/CBC)

Watson made the decision in May 2010 to stay in solitary confinement so he wouldn’t get in any more trouble.

Obsessed with math, Watson would study in his cell. His dad, Bernard James Watson, would cut up textbooks for other subjects and mail him the pages to use for lessons on chemistry and physics.

Watson apologized to his parents for what he put them through over the years and vowed he was going to put his life back together.

What the parole board said

A parole board document noted Watson’s behaviour changed once he permanently moved to solitary confinement.

“File information indicates that you have made some admirable changes in your behaviour, attitude, motivation and commitment to change,” it said.

“Literally, it appears that you have adopted an entire (sic) different personality. You have recently placed a lot of energy on your release plan and have expressed remorse for your victims.”

Watson got out of prison in late 2010, lived in a halfway house in Saint John, N.B., and resumed working in construction. He immediately met a woman with a four-year-old son; the couple married in February 2011.

While Watson wanted to go to university to study math, he didn’t think that would allow him to help provide for his family. His wife, Janelle, suggested he instead get an engineering diploma from New Brunswick Community College. He loved the program and graduated at the top of his class, but said the content was just “scratching at the surface.” He wanted to dig deeper.

Rejected by Dalhousie

Watson applied to the engineering program at Dalhousie, the site of many of his life’s missteps. He was turned down.

“I was heartbroken,” said Watson.

But Watson’s dad had an in. A repairman with Sears, one of his clients was the then-president at Dalhousie. Watson said his dad made a plea to him and the decision was overturned. He started the engineering program in the 2013-14 academic year.

The next few years for Watson were a mix of school and an ever-growing family. With Janelle regularly taking maternity leaves, money was tight. They moved in with Watson’s parents on a couple of occasions, living in their basement.

“I was 30 years old with three kids and living in my parents basement. I felt like a failure,” he said. (He and Janelle now have five children.)

Watson is shown in this photo from the 2013-14 academic year at Dalhousie University during his first year of engineering. He was initially denied admission but his father made a personal appeal to the university’s president. (Submitted by Mark Watson)

By 2017, Watson was nearly done his degree, but he was dealt a major blow. His father was diagnosed with renal cancer. Roz Watson said when her husband received the diagnosis from doctors, he focused on one thing.

“His first question was, ‘Do you think I’ll make it until April or May when my son graduates?’ That’s all he cared about,” she said.

“He never once complained about his fate or the fact that he was dying. But it bothered him that much that he was not going to be there to see Mark graduate. That was his main concern. That was sad.”

Bernard James Watson died in December 2017.

Watson and his dad at a Dalhousie event in early 2017. His father was soon diagnosed with cancer and didn’t live to see his son graduate from university. (Submitted by Mark Watson)

During the roughest parts of his teenage years and early 20s, Watson’s dad always told him he was capable of more and needed to apply himself. He also encouraged him to go to school.

“Even though I gave up on myself and I gave up on my future, there was always that idea in the back of my head that I could do more and that was because of him,” said Watson.

Bernard James Watson would not get to see his son graduate from university at the top of his class. He also missed out on Watson working with a satellite communications company as an embedded systems engineer, as well as Watson starting an engineering PhD and teaching part-time at Dalhousie.

“He didn’t end up getting to see how this story ended,” said Watson.

Roz Watson said when her husband died, he knew his son was on the right path.

Watson is shown with his wife, Janelle, and their five children. This photo was taken in 2020. (Submitted by Mark Watson)

“We’re just so thankful that in the long run he did choose the right way to go with his life,” she said.

Tabitha Bainbridge taught Watson in high school. Despite his struggles, she was optimistic he’d turn his life around. What gave her faith was he was bright, compassionate and he’d stick up for other people. She said if someone was late to class, he’d be the first to help the person get up to speed.

‘The overcoming does define who he is,’ says former teacher

A teacher for almost three decades — all at Sir John A./Bay View — she’s kept in touch with Watson. She’d like to see him tell his story to students.

“He has come to terms with what he did and he realizes that it doesn’t define him, or at least the negative parts don’t define who he is,” she said. “The overcoming does define who he is.”

Mark Watson said he told his story in the hopes it would help someone who is in a difficult place or feels they aren’t reaching their potential.

Asked what he would tell someone who was in a similar position to him, he said: “You have to go all in. You have to cut all ties to your past and you have to be 100 per cent committed. And for the long haul, like, it’s going to be a long road and it takes that sustained consistent effort.”


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