'He didn't get a death sentence': Living in fear of COVID-19 behind bars

An Edmonton man serving a 10-year sentence at the Edmonton Institution is afraid his medical condition makes him especially vulnerable to COVID-19.

Edmonton Institution inmate afraid he’s ‘a sitting duck’

Edmonton Institution is a federal maximum-security prison, designed to hold 324 inmates. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

Deanna Henry panics if her husband doesn't phone her every day at the regular time. 

Jonathan Henry is serving a 10-year sentence at the Edmonton Institution. 

"It's literally consuming me every day," she said. "If I don't hear from him when I usually do, I get extra worried that maybe they've gone into a lockdown. And if they go into a lockdown, there's no telling when they would be out again." 

According to court records, Jonathan Henry, 32, has a lengthy criminal record, consisting mostly of drugs and weapons charges. 

In October 2017, Henry was sentenced after pleading guilty to possession of cocaine for the purpose of trafficking as well as a number of firearms counts.

Henry is eligible to apply for parole and has a hearing scheduled for May, but he worries about spending any more time behind bars while the COVID-19 crisis grows.

"I have chronic asthma," he told CBC News during a telephone interview from the prison. "I take medication for high blood pressure, so I'm more susceptible to catching whatever this thing is."

Inmates 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. 

Jonathan Henry, 32, is serving a 10-year prison term for drug and weapons offences. (Deanna Henry )

Henry doesn't think all staff is taking the coronavirus threat seriously. 

"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."

For two days last week, he complained, inmates were without toilet paper and a shipment of cleaning supplies had been held up. 

In an email to CBC News, a Correctional Service Canada spokesperson said there is now a supply of toilet paper, soap and cleaning supplies at Edmonton Institution. 

"CSC has enhanced cleaning protocols, including disinfecting common areas of contact and increased prevention awareness in all workplaces," the spokesperson wrote. "CSC has been working with institutions to identify stock and determine the need for disinfectant cleaners and hand sanitizers."

'Our cells are maybe a metre apart'

That does little to comfort Jonathan Henry and his wife. 

"We know of some staff that actually had recently come from different parts of Canada," Jonathan Henry said. "So they travelled to Ontario, and they're back, and they're working right away."

He pointed out that the prison designed to hold 324 maximum security inmates does not lend itself to social distancing. 

"It's basically a hallway with 12 cells," he said. "We eat together. Our cells are maybe a metre apart." 

Typical common area at Edmonton Institution, indicating a lack of physical distancing is available during mealtime. (Office of the Correctional Investigator )

Deanna Henry is also concerned about all the people coming and going from the maximum security prison. 

"They're doing transfers every day," she said. "Staff and the correctional officers all coming in and out. So it's not saying 'that' if they get this, it's 'when.'" 

'We're all just sitting in limbo' 

Deanna Henry said she's been frustrated with the lack of information being shared by the federal government and CSC. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Sunday that the public safety minister would soon announce measures to mitigate the risk to inmates, adding his government is "very concerned" there could be greater vulnerability to COVID-19 in correctional facilities.

"He's just dancing around it, and he says that he's concerned," she said. "But we're all just sitting all in limbo just waiting for some kind of an answer." 

An answer of sorts was revealed Monday when CSC announced in a news release that two inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 at Port-Cartier Institution in Quebec. Even before that diagnosis, nine employees at the same prison had also tested positive. 

In response, the two inmates were medically isolated from the general inmate population and the prison has been put on lockdown. 

Staff members there are now wearing masks. Disinfecting has been done and all inmate transfers and programming has been suspended. 

The most recent statistics available on the CSC website indicate that as of Sunday, 44 inmates nation-wide had been tested for COVID-19. Twenty of those tests were conducted on Alberta inmates. 

Sixteen inmates at the Bowden medium security prison were tested and all results came back negative. 

Two inmates have been tested at the Edmonton Institution. Those test results have not been received. 

Jonathan Henry said he feels like a sitting duck. 

"It's only a matter of time before it comes in here," he said. "Once it comes in here, it's going to spread like wildfire."

His wife agreed. 

"As soon as it gets onto the range, it will infect all of the inmates on the range," Deanna Henry said. 

"When Jonathan got sentenced, he got a 10-year sentence. He didn't get a death sentence."


Janice Johnston

Court and crime reporter

Janice Johnston is an investigative journalist with CBC Edmonton who has covered Alberta courts and crime for more than three decades. She won a national Radio Television Digital News Association award in 2016 for her coverage of the trial of a 13-year-old Alberta boy who was acquitted of killing his abusive father. You can reach her at janice.johnston@cbc.ca.