Outsiders must oversee cultural change at Edmonton Institution

Stan Stapleton, USJE National President

Edmonton Journal

On Monday, Correctional Service Canada confirmed that it had terminated two correctional officers and two managers at the maximum-security prison, Edmonton Institution, after launching an investigation this past summer.

The investigation was instigated by an independent workplace assessment which found widespread sexual harassment and bullying among employees.

The independent assessment revealed that a “culture of bullying and harassment” had become firmly entrenched at Edmonton Institution, largely fuelled by a small group of correctional guards, or officers who used extreme intimidation tactics and threats to wield power.

Many employees had reported turning a blind eye to misconduct — including the abuse of other staff or inmates — because they genuinely feared retribution from bullies. Some employees, largely female, indicated being subjected to workplace violence including sexual harassment and assault.

In other instances, certain correctional employees were found to have intimidated female staff with threats of violence by suggesting that they would unleash high-risk male offenders on them and do nothing to intervene.

This week, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale reiterated that he wants this mess cleaned up. In light of the recent emergence of the #MeToo movement where women are speaking out against powerful abusers in their workplaces, there is no time to waste.

While Correctional Service Canada’s recent actions are a step in the right direction, the problems at Edmonton Maximum Security Institution go well beyond a few bad apples. The egregious abuse of power by a small group of employees has gone unchecked by Corrections for decades.

It has resulted in an enabling environment for the unlawful and dehumanizing treatment of some individuals, both employees and offenders. And these same problems can be found at more than one maximum security prison in this country.

There is no doubt, however, that Edmonton Maximum is among the worst. In 2013, five inmates serving time there brought a lawsuit against Corrections. They alleged that guards spit on, and put feces in, their food, regularly beat them and ran a sadistic prisoner fight club. The club, they reported, forced two offenders from rival gangs to literally fight it out until one of them was beaten unconscious by the other.

Tom Engel, lawyer for the inmates said, “Essentially, it’s guards acting as thugs,” characterizing it as a flagrant abuse of authority and a violation of human rights. Further, Engel expressed dismay that “Correctional Service of Canada management is not doing anything about it. In fact, they are part of the subculture, they support the guards, they cover up for them. It’s the code of silence at work within our jails.”

Notably, charges against Corrections were stayed because the case automatically expired under federal law while waiting a hearing. Despite these more recent, and much belated, efforts to right the ship, the toxic culture there will not change without outside intervention.

If Edmonton Institution is to be fixed, an independent expert team must oversee the prison’s transformation. Hundreds of employees have acclimatized to a workplace with profound power imbalances and a history of significant neglect. Few believe that Corrections has the expertise, let alone commitment, to truly bring change.

Edmonton Institution houses some of Canada’s most violent, and broken human beings who — whether by nature or nurture — have found themselves embroiled in a vicious cycle of crime. More than half are Indigenous, coming from families torn apart by generations of residential schooling. These individuals need the best that Corrections has to offer in rehabilitative programming, not a highly toxic and damaging environment.

Misconduct and abuse at Edmonton Institution has been fuelled by structural power imbalances that have imbued some employees, and managers, with far too much control over their colleagues, staff and offenders. It has been sustained by an astonishing lack of accountability.

Until these power dynamics are overturned with the assistance of an independent outside team, there is little hope for Edmonton Institution’s long-term transformation.

Stan Stapleton worked at Edmonton Institution as a correctional officer and subsequently as a program officer for 23 years before becoming national president of the Union of Safety and Justice Employees in 2014.