An Edmonton Institution inmate has had his phone privileges suspended after speaking to the media about conditions inside the maximum-security prison during the pandemic.
Jonathan Henry, 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 expressed concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.
“I have chronic asthma,” Henry said. “I take medication for high blood pressure, so I’m more susceptible to catching whatever this thing is.”
He 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 behind prison walls, there was an immediate reaction to the CBC story.
“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.”
All visits to the prison are forbidden due to COVID-19, so phone calls are the only way she can stay in touch with her husband.
“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.”
Henry’s lawyer calls the prison’s response “draconian.”
“It’s appalling,” Amanda Hart-Dowhun told CBC News. “It looks like they are trying to prevent prisoners from talking and from telling the public how they are actually being treated.”
‘Punish and muzzle’
As soon as she heard about the phone suspension, Hart-Dowhun sent an urgent letter to prison warden Gary Sears.
“The suspension of Mr. Henry’s phone privileges as punishment for speaking to the media about the concerns of inmates during a pandemic creates a chilling effect,” she wrote. “That action will discourage inmates from voicing any concerns about their quality of care during this time.”
On Friday, Hart-Dowhun received a response from the warden. The letter was provided to CBC News.
In it, Sears appeared to suggest Henry had broken prison rules by speaking to a CBC journalist.
He quoted from the inmate handbook, noting, “Third party calling is not permitted under any circumstances. Any misuse of telephone privileges, particularly third party calling, may result in an inmate’s phone privileges being restricted or suspended for a period of time.”
The response didn’t satisfy Hart-Dowhun or Henry’s wife.
Deanna Henry said her husband was never given a copy of the inmate’s handbook when he was transferred to Edmonton Institution.
Hart-Dowhun sent a letter Friday to the public safety minister, the commissioner of Correctional Service Canada and correctional investigator Ivan Zinger, asking for their help to resolve the situation.
“I ask that you take steps to intervene in this decision and allow Mr. Henry to have contact with the community during this health crisis,” she wrote.
“This censoring of an inmate in the wake of him publicizing his fears and the conditions inside of prison is appalling. It gives the appearance that CSC will punish and muzzle any inmate that publicly voices concerns about their treatment during this pandemic.”
The correctional investigator declined comment on the case in an email to CBC News, but said he would investigate the situation.
Inmate rules for speaking to media
Esther Mailhot, a CSC communications officer, responded to a request for comment from CBC News with a reminder that journalists “are required to inform CSC of their requests” to interview inmates.
Mailhot added that prisoners are also “responsible for informing their parole officer of their interest in being interviewed by the media.”
She declined to comment on Henry’s case, citing privacy reasons.
Meanwhile, Deanna Henry sits by the phone, willing it to ring.
“It’s extremely frustrating and we’re sitting here worried about him,” she said. “We don’t know if maybe he’s going to start showing symptoms and has no way of calling us and letting us know.”
The most recent CSC statistics indicate three inmates at the Edmonton Institution have been tested for COVID-19. Two of the tests have been negative, while the third result is pending.