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Police investigating after male inmate dies in St. John’s, N.L., penitentiary

Her Majesty's Penitentiary, a minimum security penitentiary in St. John's, NL, overlooks Quidi Vidi Lake on June 9, 2011.
Her Majesty's Penitentiary, a minimum security penitentiary in St. John's, NL, overlooks Quidi Vidi Lake on June 9, 2011. The Canadian Press/Paul Daly

Police are investigating the death of a male inmate following a reported altercation with officers at a correctional centre in St. John’s, N.L., and his lawyer is calling for a public inquiry.

The province’s Department of Justice and Public Safety says the “sudden death” occurred Wednesday at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary.

Lawyer Bob Buckingham said the deceased man was his client, 33-year-old Jonathan Henoche, whom he described as “a man with many troubles and difficulties not of his own making.”

He said Henoche, who lived in Labrador before he was incarcerated, struggled throughout his life because of his fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

“Throughout his 33 years, our education system, health care system and justice system failed Mr. Henoche,” Buckingham said in a statement.

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Henoche was awaiting trial on several charges, including first-degree murder, and Buckingham said his death denied him the right to a fair trial. “He had the right to be treated humanely,” the statement said. “The criminal justice system should be held accountable.”

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Buckingham also called for the province’s chief medical examiner to lead a public inquiry into the incident, citing legislation giving the examiner authority to investigate a death at a correctional facility. He said the circumstances of Henoche’s death “demand” an independent inquiry.

The Justice Department said it will conduct a review of the death, looking at staff response and appropriateness of policies and procedures.

“The safety and well-being of inmates and staff at any provincial facility is a top priority,” the department said in a statement. It said the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary and the medical examiner are working to determine a cause of death.

Jerry Earle, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees, said correctional officers were involved.

Earle was limited in his comments because of the investigation, but he said in an interview that he’s been informed that two officers were allegedly assaulted by Henoche. More officers then responded, though Earle said he is not aware of the total number of people involved.

He said the two people involved in the initial incident were not at work Thursday and the union has reached out to offer support.

“Most people can’t imagine what these workplaces are like,” Earle said. “They’re challenging on the best of days.”

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Speaking in the provincial legislature Thursday, where the justice minister was absent, Liberal cabinet minister Brian Warr said correctional officers are co-operating with the police investigation.

Henoche was charged in 2016 with the murder of Anna Regula Schule, 88, in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

Same man reported missing from correctional facility for second time in Saint John
Same man reported missing from correctional facility for second time in Saint John

His death is the third fatality at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary since 2017 and the fifth at a correctional facility in Newfoundland and Labrador over the same period.

A review last year of four inmate deaths described a crisis in the province’s largest men’s and women’s facilities.

The report by retired police superintendent Marlene Jesso concluded overcrowding, insufficient health services and understaffing contributed to inmates’ poor mental health conditions, though it did not find that action by staff could have prevented the deaths.

The families of two inmates have filed lawsuits, one led by Buckingham, claiming negligence by the province worsened their loved ones’ mental health conditions and led to their deaths.

Newfoundland and Labrador announced earlier this year it would replace Her Majesty’s Penitentiary following decades of complaints about the Victorian-era facility.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 7, 2019.