Coroner to hold inquest into man's death at Shediac jail

·5 min read
The Department of Justice and Public Safety have said little about how and why 37-year-old Derek James Whalen died in custody of the Southeast Regional Correctional Centre in May 2020. ( - image credit)
The Department of Justice and Public Safety have said little about how and why 37-year-old Derek James Whalen died in custody of the Southeast Regional Correctional Centre in May 2020. ( - image credit)

New Brunswick's chief coroner will hold an inquest into the death of a 37-year-old man who died in custody of the Southeast Regional Correctional Centre last year, the Department of Justice and Public Safety has confirmed.

Such an inquest is mandatory for all non-natural deaths in custody.

More than 14 months after Derek James Whalen died, the department, which runs the jail in Shediac, will say little about how Whalen died or what led to his death.

But the New Brunswick RCMP major crime unit's investigation found that force was used against Whalen at the jail.

RCMP previously told CBC News they were called to the Shediac jail around 11:25 p.m. on May 3, 2020, after receiving "a report of an inmate being unresponsive."

"The investigation learned the individual was combative, and had been restrained before his death," RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Hans Ouellette told CBC News in an email.

"A review found that policy was followed and the force used was not unreasonable. The investigation was concluded."

Whalen was transported to the Moncton Hospital on May 3, 2020, where he was pronounced dead, the province has said.

In the past, the department has described the circumstances that led to an inmate's death or their need for medical care. In 2018, a press release described how staff at the Southeast Regional Correctional centre found a 49-year-old man unresponsive in his cell and made efforts to revive him before he died.

But the department provided no such details about Whalen's death, saying only that it was subject to an investigation by the RCMP and coroner.

Asked this week for an update on the investigation into Whalen's death, a spokesperson for the department said it does not "release details about specific cases."

Whalen loved spending time with friends, family

"The investigation has been concluded and a coroner's inquest will be conducted," Coreen Enos wrote in an emailed statement.

"The date of the inquest will be publicly announced when it has been set."

The department also declined to provide any information about Whalen's death in response to an access to information request filed by CBC News earlier this year. The department cited privacy legislation, saying disclosure could be an unreasonable invasion of Whalen's privacy.

In an obituary, Whalen's family remembered the Moncton man as someone who enjoyed working out at the gym and barbering for himself and his friends.

Fergusons Funeral Home
Fergusons Funeral Home

"He had recently rekindled his love for drawing, but time spent with his friends and family were most important to him," the obituary says.

Whalen was in jail on remand, awaiting a court appearance, at the time of his death, the province said.

He was supposed to have a bail hearing on May 6, 2020, for a single charge of possessing "a firearm, a cross-bow, a prohibited weapon, a restricted weapon, a prohibited device, any ammunition, any prohibited ammunition or an explosive substance while the person is prohibited from doing so," according to court records.

Inquests mandatory for non-natural deaths in custody

In the past, the public may not have been notified of Whalen's death at all.

In 2016, the Department of Justice and Public Safety changed its policies, deciding to issue a news release whenever someone dies in custody of a jail. A news release should be issued within 12 hours of the person's death and include their name, age and name of the jail where they were in custody, the department said at the time.

Three years later, the chief coroner's office went a step further, issuing a directive that requires a coroner's inquest when someone dies from unnatural causes in custody of jails, penitentiaries or any other "place of secure custody or place of temporary detention." The inquest into Whalen's death appears to be the first mandatory inquest held under the directive.

Ombud Charles Murray, who pushed for mandatory inquests for people who die in custody, said the new process will be more transparent.

"It's one that encourages more public understanding and trust of what took place and what are the issues inside institutions," Murray said.

"Obviously, these are the first steps. There will be, as we say, learnings from this."

Nicolas Steinbach/Radio-Canada
Nicolas Steinbach/Radio-Canada

As time goes on, he hopes the correctional system will become used to the transparency and will start disclosing more public information.

"I think we should start by understanding that the culture of the institutions and of the public safety division is one of the most unique and self-protective cultures in all of government," Murray said.

"And so, it's very resistant to change. Given that, we've seen enormous strides over the last five years."

'A complete new philosophy'

Murray said there's been "a complete new philosophy" in the department about how to deal with these issues.

While his office won't have a role in the inquest, Murray said he'll be watching the inquest as an interested observer.

When asked about people who may feel more information should be public more than a year after Whalen's death, Murray said the system should improve as more is learned.

"Part of what happens in the privacy and disclosure field is that delay tends to invite suspicion," he said.

"And the first time you do something, of course, it takes longer and of course you're going to be more careful. But my hope is, is that, over time, we'll get better at that as well, that will be part of what will improve."

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