Inmates 'deserve to be safe': Death of Cornell Henry exposes security failings at Saskatoon jail

Wayne Anderson says he's considering legal action against Saskatchewan's Ministry of Corrections after his son was injured and went undetected for two hours inside his Saskatoon Correctional Centre cell.

Wayne Anderson says he's considering legal action against Saskatchewan's Ministry of Corrections

Wayne Anderson says he's considering legal action against Saskatchewan's Ministry of Corrections after his son, Cornell Henry, was injured and went undetected for two hours inside his Saskatoon Correctional Centre cell. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

The father of a Saskatoon Correctional Centre inmate who was attacked after his personal file fell into the hands of another prisoner is threatening legal action against Saskatchewan's Ministry of Corrections and Policing. 

Wayne Anderson also heard in court Wednesday that his son Cornell Henry — after being fatally struck in the head inside his cell — wasn't found by guards for two hours, and that Saskatoon police officers didn't respond to the scene for another two hours after that. 

Henry, 41, died in hospital 10 days later, after his family took him off life support. 

"Inmates should be looked after and checked on, regardless of what the circumstances are," Anderson said outside Saskatoon Court of Queen's Bench.

'They call cells their houses for a reason'

Anderson's comment came moments after Nathan Ermine, 31, was sentenced to nine years in prison for three assaults in 2017, including the Oct. 23 attack on Henry, another jailhouse assault, and an attack that took place in a restaurant.

Ermine pleaded guilty to manslaughter earlier this week.

Ermine's other jailhouse attack also took place at Saskatoon Correctional Centre after a guard let Ermine into his victim's cell. 

The security lapses that preceded both assaults came under fire by Crown prosecutor Carla Dewar. 

"Notwithstanding what society may feel about inmates generally, people who are either awaiting trial or sentencing or serving out a sentence deserve to be safe in their institution," Dewar said.

Carla Dewar laid out in painstaking detail the circumstances of Henry's in-custody death. (Trevor Bothorel/CBC)

"They call cells their houses for a reason," Dewar continued. "It's a place where you should be able to be safe and should be able to be controlled." 

Ermine's defence attorney, Michael Nolin, agreed.

"I'm disappointed in the Saskatoon Correctional Centre and their ability to keep inmates safe," he said. "It's a dangerous place and I think they should be having a much higher attention to detail." 

"But I'll let another court or another inquiry comment further on that," he added. 

A civil action 

Anderson said he intends to file a civil suit against the Ministry of Corrections in the name of Henry's 10-year-old daughter who, instead of a written victim impact statement, gave the court a drawing of her and her dad. 

Anderson said he wants to know how his son's personal file — which included Henry's criminal record — wound up on a breakfast cart operated by inmates. 

"That's the question that I want answered," Anderson said. 

In a written statement to CBC News, the ministry said its thoughts went out to the Henry family.

"[We] hope they are able to find some measure of closure with the conclusion of these criminal proceedings," the statement said.

The ministry added that it has reviewed the results of both the internal and police investigations into Henry's death. It's reviewing the results "in the hopes of preventing similar situations in the future."

"The primary concern at any of the province's correctional facilities is the safety and security of staff, inmates and the facility itself," the ministry said. 

What happened that day

Dewar laid out in detail what happened at the jail on the morning Henry was attacked. 

Henry, who was on remand, had not been at the facility for long and was due to be transferred in the next day or two. 

Some time before 8:55 a.m., a female corrections staffer grabbed the mail from her box at the jail. Inside the pile was Cornell Henry's file. 

"Obviously fairly sensitive material," Dewar said. 

The staffer then picked up the breakfast cart and took it to D Block where both Henry and Ermine were housed. 

"[She], for whatever reason, put the file inside the cart on top of the food," Dewar said. Two inmates then took over the cart, as was customary. 

The Ministry of Corrections said it's reviewing the results of two investigations into Henry's attack at Saskatoon Correctional Centre. (Matthew Garand/CBC)

According to Dewar, video from the block's common room shows one of the inmates looking at the file. Two pages from the criminal record were never recovered. 

"The Crown's theory is that at that they were sharing what was on the criminal record with other people in the unit," Dewar said. 

At this point, Ermine and other inmates on the block — including Raven Don Constant, the other man who pleaded guilty to manslaughter in Henry's death — were free to roam the unit. 

At 8:55 a.m., Ermine and Constant quickly followed Henry into his cell. 

"You can get a sense [from the video] that Mr. Henry sits down on a chair and Mr. Ermine and Mr. Constant go into the cell. You can see Mr. Ermine's arm being pulled back in a punching motion," Dewar said. 

As Michael Nolan, Ermine's defence attorney, pointed out, Ermine never admitted to physically assaulting Henry. 

But Nolan said the law takes into account "whether or not your presence prevents an individual from leaving a violent altercation. And the evidence that we didn't dispute is that [Ermine] closed the door and blocked the door."

Nathan Ermine was sentenced to nine years in jail Wednesday for his part in the 2017 death of fellow inmate Cornell Henry as well as two other assaults that year. (Facebook)

Injured and undetected for 2 hours

Dewar said guards do conduct periodic checks on inmates in cells. 

"But they're not checks where people have to present themselves or stand up," Dewar said.

"From my understanding, the corrections officers really just look in through the door and make sure that there are the number of people in the cell that there should be — and that's it." 

"Probably not the best situation," Dewar added. "But it is what it is."

Henry's roommate returned to the cell to find Henry tucked under his blanket and, not seeing any sign of a disturbance, thought Henry was sleeping and so took a nap in the top bunk.

Only at 11 a.m., after Henry failed to show up for his medications, did guards go into his cell and find him injured. 

"They removed the covers and there was blood covering his head," Dewar said. "It became clear there had been some type of incident on the unit."

Between the time of the assault and the guards' discovery of Henry, Ermine and Constant were free to take showers and do laundry, Dewar said. 

"As a result, nothing forensically significant was found on Mr. Ermine or his clothes. There was a spot on Mr. Constant's shirt which contained DNA of the victim."

Neither Ermine nor Constant provided police any information when initially interviewed by police, Dewar said. 

1 of 3 assaults in 2017

Among the other crimes Ermine pleaded guilty to this week was a Christmas Eve assault on another inmate at Saskatoon Correctional Centre — a mere two months after the attack on Henry.

Ermine told a guard that the victim needed some toilet paper. 

"So the officer, not necessarily smartly, opened the cell for Mr. Ermine," who then punched the victim several times, Dewar said. 

The third crime that also accounted for Ermine's nine-year sentence was the January 2017 attack that landed him in jail in the first place. 

Dewar said a pipe-wielding Ermine entered a Saskatoon restaurant and attacked a man. The victim's hand did not heal properly, requiring the tip of one finger to be amputated.   

Dewar said she took the unprovoked nature of all three attacks into account when making her joint sentencing submission with Nolan, Ermine's lawyer. 

Nolan did dispute one point. He said Ermine's Christmas Eve jail attack was provoked by the victim.

"[The victim] had been shouting in the range that Mr. Ermine was a PC," Noland said. "In jail lingo, that signals that he's either in jail for a sex crime or he's an informant/rat." 

'Doesn't bring my son back'

Ermine spoke briefly to the court after Justice Michael Tochor accepted the sentence. He apologized to Henry's family, adding, "it all happened so fast."

As Ermine was being led out of the courtroom, Anderson had some final words for him: 

"That doesn't bring back my son, does it?"

About the Author

Guy Quenneville

Journalist at CBC Saskatoon

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