Inmate assaults and workplace fear: Report details ongoing problems at Edmonton Institution

A “culture of impunity” persists at Edmonton’s maximum security prison for men, contributing to a toxic workplace for staff and to conditions that have led to coordinated assaults on some inmates by their peers.

The characterization comes in a document released Tuesday by Ivan Zinger, the Correctional Investigator of Canada, who reports annually on major issues of concern within the federal prison system.

Zinger’s 2018-19 report includes an entire section titled, “Dysfunction at Edmonton Institution.”

“A culture of impunity still seems firmly rooted at Edmonton Institution; it is more than just a case of a few bad apples or isolated incidents,” Zinger writes.

The investigator goes into detail about the “culture of fear” that persists among prison staff, several years after female correctional officers first came forward with stories of being sexually harassed and assaulted by their male colleagues.

The report also details inmate-on-inmate assaults, in which a group of protected-status inmates were repeatedly pelted with hot food and other objects while they moved from one section of the prison to another.

The report states correctional officers knew of the attacks and did nothing to stop them.

“It’s pretty disturbing and ironic that an institution that is supposed to enforce the law is, in fact, lawless,” said Tom Engel, an Edmonton criminal defence lawyer.

“The problem is the correctional investigator and others have exposed this for years, and the Correctional Service of Canada hasn’t taken any effective steps to remedy it.”

The report notes problems at Edmonton Institution were first raised in 2016 and subsequent investigations found it to be a “lawless, toxic and callous” place.

Some female correctional officers reported feeling suicidal as a result of the treatment by their peers. One male guard was criminally charged in 2019 for his actions at the prison, but the charge was later stayed.

An internal survey last year found 17 employees said they had been sexually assaulted by a co-worker, and 65 respondents said they had been sexually harassed by a co-worker. Many staff reported feeling more scared of their colleagues than of the inmates.

Approximately 390 people work at the Edmonton Institution. The prison can accommodate 324 offenders.

Pelted by food and other objects

An investigator from the Office of the Correctional Investigator met in August 2018 with protected-status inmates who said they had been hit with food, liquids and other objects as they moved from one part of the prison to the other. 

“My investigator was given clear indication from management that the physical assaults were known to them, that they had been reported before and that dynamic security was a challenge on that particular unit,” Zinger wrote in his report.

Correctional Investigator of Canada, Dr. Ivan Zinger, is seen during a news conference discussing his latest report Tuesday in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

While possible security actions were discussed, Zinger wrote the violence appeared to have escalated when the investigator returned a few months later. 

Video evidence clearly shows inmates, “looking for and gathering food and other items, heating up food in the microwave, carefully watching and waiting until staff members had moved out of the way to begin their assault as protected status inmates walked by the range barriers without staff escort.” 

Zinger noted it was only once video evidence was forwarded to the CSC commissioner that action was taken — including the suspension of several staff members, police notification and the launch of an internal disciplinary investigation.

Future recommendations

While “population management” is an ongoing issue at Edmonton Institution — the report states there are at least eight different groups at the prison that can’t mingle or integrate with each other — Zinger wrote he was dismayed by the on-going inmate-on-inmate assaults.

“Though I did not expect the culture at Edmonton Institution to turn around overnight, the fact that staff appeared to have looked the other way as these incidents occurred is very troubling,” the report states.

“That these incidents took place at an institution where the workplace culture is known to be especially problematic should have added to the sense of urgency and duty to act.”

Zinger recommended that Correctional Services Canada ask an independent expert to asses the culture at the Edmonton prison, and develop potential strategies to change it.

CSC has said it plans to conduct an audit on workplace culture.