Edmonton's maximum-security prison is operating on a dystopian system of fear, harassment and bullying — where a handful of employees have seized control and abuse their power to stay on top, according to an internal report obtained by CBC News.

Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) ordered the report around the time it came to light that some male guards missed some inmates' calls for help while they had sexually explicit conversations about their female coworkers, using work phones.  

The report describes a toxic culture at the Edmonton Institution, where bad behaviour is on full display but often goes undisciplined, and employees are afraid to tell managers about infractions, like abuse of co-workers or inmates, for fear of retribution.

The toxicity in the Edmonton prison was so prolific that the investigators compared it to "the Blob," from the 1950s sci-fi movie.

"Many of the people who become part of it are good people but helpless against its power," reads the report. "How do you get rid of something so all-consuming?"

'Truly broken'

Last fall, the CSC's deputy commissioner Peter Linkletter tasked an independent consulting firm with looking into the Edmonton Institution's working environment.

The firm picked 83 current and past employees at random to answer a set of questions during hour-long interviews. The firm also interviewed 23 others, including experts, union representatives and senior managers.  

Employees reported harassment, bullying and intimidation at most levels, the report said, from management down.

They also referred to five or six people in particular who used bullying and intimidation tactics to wield power. While those people are not named in the report, it suggests employees knew who they were and feared them.

"Some felt guilty that they had turned away from watching actions that others did that were wrong — abuse of other staff or inmates. Why? In part, because they feared retribution from bullies," the report reads.

li-edm-institution

The report offers 40 recommendations for change at the maximum-security prison. (CBC)

The report's summary goes on to describe how people who raise concerns at the prison are reportedly bullied, gossiped about or left without backup while on the range with prisoners.

The employees said they interpret these actions as threats to their careers and personal safety.

"There was a strong sense among interviewees that EI is truly broken. It can only be described as a culture of fear, mistrust, intimidation, disorganization and inconsistency," the report said.

There were also allegations that employees used lockdowns, searches and safety complaints to "rile up inmates, to shirk their responsibilities, or to get back at management."

The report notes that the Edmonton Institution has seen a spike in searches since 2015.

The document — dated March 12, 2017 — offers 40 recommendations for change.

They include sending new employees elsewhere for training during the first six weeks of employment, putting the six kingpin employees on notice, and designating a "respected person" to take on harassment complaints for at least three years.

Sexual harassment underreported

CBC has spoken with four correctional employees who have direct knowledge of the conditions in the prison. They are not being named due to concern for their safety and their jobs.

Their accounts not only corroborate the report's contents, but they say in some cases, the issues described are worse in reality.

Sexual harassment, for example, is mentioned in two short paragraphs that open with "our observations of the interactions between men and woman at EI were generally collegial and respected [sic] … There are still staff who have not overcome the view of women as sexual objects, rather than equal colleagues."

Corrections watchdog Ivan Zinger

Federal correctional investigator Ivan Zinger called the report's findings 'shocking.' (CBC)

Sexual harassment amongst staff at the prison is rampant, the sources say, and can begin from day one. Male trainers have been known to suggest that female recruits must offer them sexual favours in order to "pass" their training, they say.

"There needs to be an independent second party for people's grievances and complaints. They need someone who feels safe to go to, to initiate the investigation, and to protect these people," one source said.

"I don't see how anything can change without a management change and specialized corporate people involved."

The CSC turned down multiple requests for an interview. But spokesperson Jeff Campbell wrote in an email that the organization supports the recommendations and has struck a committee to address them.

"We do not tolerate any breach of our policies and all allegations are thoroughly investigated regardless of the source," he said in a statement.

'It's like Lord of the Flies'

Canada's correctional investigator Ivan Zinger said his office has recently received so many human rights abuse allegations from the Edmonton Institution that his team wrote to the CSC commissioner directly to ask for an independent report on the workplace.

It was only the second time in his office's history that they have asked for action on a labour issue.

"It is shocking. There's no doubt some strong intervention is required," Zinger said.

Glenn French, president of the Canadian Initiative on Workplace Violence, said the report shows there's been "a failure in leadership" at the Edmonton Institution.

"I was appalled, frankly," French said. "It's like Lord of the Flies."

He said he was particularly struck by the mentions of harassment or assault against inmates, and by the fact that the toxicity was reported to have saturated all levels.

"Something quite dramatic needs to happen, in my view."