USGE pushes for action at ‘toxic’ Edmonton prison

‘There is a lot of fear’ at Edmonton Institution, USGE says, after report describing system of intimidation

By Marion Warnica, CBC News Posted: Jun 29, 2017 3:00 AM MT Last Updated: Jun 29, 2017 3:36 AM MT – Union, public safety minister push for action at ‘toxic’ Edmonton prison

Canada’s public safety minister has ordered the federal corrections service to prepare a report on what it’s doing to prevent harassment by and of employees — a move that comes as one union is lambasting the response to high-profile harassment issues at Edmonton’s maximum-security prison.

In an email to CBC News, a spokesperson for Ralph Goodale said that his office wrote directly to the commissioner of the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) to make the request.

“Minister Goodale asked Commissioner [Don] Head to prepare a report on the actions CSC has taken to date to ensure its workplace is free from harassment and sexual violence, its plans moving forward and what challenges it faces in driving progress,” Scott Bardsley wrote.

It comes after CBC News uncovered explosive allegations that lengthy and sexually explicit conversations on work phones were allegedly the reason why prison guards at the Edmonton Institution missed several calls for help from inmates.

More recently, CBC News obtained a scathing report outlining a dysfunctional workplace culture within the facility. The report — prepared by independent consulting firm TLS Enterprises — described toxicity and harassment so rampant that they compared to the 1950s sci-fi movie The Blob.

The report also identifies, but does not name, five or six correctional officers who appear to have seized control of the Edmonton Institution, and abuse their power to stay on top.

‘There is a lot of fear’

The report made 40 recommendations for change, including training new employees at a different institution for their first six weeks, and designating a “respected person” at the prison to whom workers could take harassment complaints.

CSC says it supports the recommendations and has struck a committee to put them into action. But the union representing more than 100 facility employees is crying foul.

“Having management try to fix a problem that they have ignored for decades is not the solution,” said Stan Stapleton, the national president of the Union of Solicitor General Employees (USGE).

Stapleton himself worked at the Edmonton Institution for 20 years as a prison guard, starting in 1983. He said he spent two days last week meeting with workers in Edmonton who told him they have little confidence in how CSC is handling the situation.

Stapleton said he and his members mainly worry that the committee is chaired by members of the current management team. One of the recommendations in the TLS report is to hire a new permanent warden and a new management team.

“There is a lot of fear,” he said. “And all this negativity impacts our rehabilitation outcomes.”

The union covers most of the employees involved with offender rehabilitation, like parole officers, teachers, program officers and case workers.

“The problems run so deep in this prison,” Stapleton said. “I don’t think the people there can fix this.”

‘Early stages’ toward long-term solutions

According to the union, the most important steps right now are to adopt three of the recommendations from the report as soon as possible:

Establishing an independent third party to whom employees can take harassment complaints.

Hiring a new permanent warden and management team.

Investigating the five to six prison guards who were identified as the people who have seized power at the Edmonton Institution and are considered the source of much of the toxicity.

As correctional officers, those five to six people belong to a different union: the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers (UCCO). CBC’s requests for comment to UCCO went unanswered.

The Correctional Service of Canada said it takes Stapleton’s concerns seriously.

Spokesperson Jeff Campbell confirmed in an email that the agency is in the process of hiring a new permanent warden, adding that “for privacy reasons, information about employee misconduct is not publicly available.”

“We have received the letter from the USGE and currently exploring options to effectively address the recommendations that were made by TLS Enterprises and the USGE,” Campbell wrote. “It is a priority for our organization to offer a positive and respectful workplace for all our staff.”

Campbell would not specifically say whether CSC is considering naming an independent person to chair the committee working on solutions at the Edmonton Institution, nor whether it planned to appoint an independent person to handle complaints.

He highlighted the fact that the committee is in the “early stages” of its work. For its part, the TLS report also outlined a plan to address the facility’s long-term issues that would take three years to implement.

Goodale had ordered the comprehensive harassment report from the CSC commissioner this past spring, making the same request to Canada Border Services Agency, the Parole Board of Canada, the RCMP and CSIS.

He has asked that those reports be completed by the end of the year.