Edmonton Institution inmate singled out for speaking to media about COVID-19, friend says

Lawyer asks for Public Safety minister, correctional investigator to intervene

Edmonton Institution is a federal maximum-security prison. (CBC)

An inmate at the federal Institution has been singled out by staff and his phone usage rights temporarily revoked after he spoke to the media about conditions inside the maximum-security prison during the pandemic.

Jonathan Henry, AKA “J-Rock”, 32, is serving a 10-year prison sentence for drugs and weapons-related offences. He is scheduled to apply for parole in May.

In a story published by CBC News last Monday, Henry relayed his worries about the virus that’s currently spreading around the world.

“I have chronic asthma,” Henry said. “I take medication for high blood pressure, so I’m more susceptible to catching whatever this thing is.”

Due to his his previous involvement as a police informant Henry is held in what is known as “PC” or protective custody.  “There’s nothing “protective” about where I live. The virus does not discriminate”, he said. Henry also complained about the reaction from some prison staff to the pandemic.

“They think it’s a big joke,” he said. “You’ll ask for something like a request form and he’ll pretend to sneeze on the request form. Like, it isn’t funny to me.”

Henry’s wife, said that inside the jails protected walls, there was an obvious reaction to the news that her husband had shared with the media.

“Apparently the guards had a meeting about him that morning,” Deanna Henry said. “I think somebody might have heard it on the radio. So they called a meeting and talked about him that morning and they decided then that they would be suspending his [phone] card for 45 days.”

Jonathan Henry, 32, is serving a ten-year prison term for drug and weapons offences. (Deanna Henry)

The prison is on lockdown as is the rest of the world due to COVID-19, so phone calls are a lifeline to those who have no other means to communicate with family outside.

“I’m very upset about it,”  Deanna Henry said. “I mean, this is a global pandemic that is happening right now. And for them to just cut it off for 45 days when that’s the only way for me and the kids to be able to speak to him. It’s very concerning to me.”

A former inmate of the Edmonton institute and friend of Henry’s told us that Inmates in protective custody are not given hand sanitizer and the only way to regularly wash their hands is to use dish soap, since buying a bar of soap is expensive behind bars and the soap is saved for showers, he said.

Henry’s lawyer calls the prison’s response “draconian.”

“It’s appalling,” Amanda Hart-Dowhun told CBC News. “They seem to be trying to stop the prisoners from speaking and telling the public how they are really being treated. “

“Punish and muzzle”

As soon as she heard about the phone suspension, Hart-Dowhun sent an urgent letter to prison guard Gary Sears.

“The suspension of Mr. Henry’s telephone privileges as a punishment for speaking to the media about the concerns of inmates during a pandemic creates a deterrent effect,” she wrote. “This will discourage inmates from expressing concerns about the quality of their care during this time.”

Defense lawyer Amanda Hart-Dowhun calls the suspension of telephone privileges for 45 days draconian. (Janice Johnston / CBC News)

Hart-Dowhun received a response from the director on Friday. The letter was delivered to CBC News.

In it, Sears appeared to suggest that Henry had broken prison rules by speaking to a CBC reporter.

He cited the inmate’s manual, noting: “Third party calls are never allowed. Any misuse of telephone privileges, in particular third party calls, may result in the restriction or suspension of an inmate’s telephone privileges for a period of time.

The answer did not satisfy Hart-Dowhun or Henry’s wife.

Deanna Henry said that her husband never received a copy of the inmate’s manual when he was transferred to Edmonton Institution.

Hart-Dowhun sent a letter Friday to the Minister of Public Safety, the Commissioner of the Correctional Service of Canada and the Correctional Investigator Ivan Zinger, asking for their help in resolving the situation.

“I ask you to take steps to intervene in this decision and allow Mr. Henry to have contact with the community during this health crisis,” she wrote.

“This censorship of an inmate following his concerns and the conditions inside the prison is appalling. He gave the impression that CSC would punish and muzzle any inmate who publicly expressed concerns about their treatment during this pandemic. “

The correctional investigator declined to comment on the matter in an email to CBC News, but said he would investigate the situation.

Inmate rules for speaking to the media

Esther Mailhot, a CSC communications officer, responded to a request for comment from CBC News, noting that journalists “are required to inform CSC of their requests” to interview an inmate.

Mailhot added that the detainees are also “responsible for informing their parole officers of their interest in being interviewed by the media”.

She declined to comment on Henry’s case, citing reasons of confidentiality.

Meanwhile, Deanna Henry is sitting by the phone, wanting it to ring.

“It is extremely frustrating and we sit here, worried about him,” she said. “We don’t know if he might start showing symptoms and there’s no way to call us and let us know. “

The most recent CSC statistics indicate that three inmates from Edmonton Institution have been tested for COVID-19. Two of the tests were negative, while the third result is expected.

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