While a third party investigates allegations of harassment and related threats at the Edmonton Institution, experts say a recent survey of federal employees indicates the city's maximum security men's prison operates under a "culture of fear."

In Ottawa's last survey of public service workers across Canada, 19 per cent of respondents said they had experienced harassment at work in the last two years.

Looking specifically at the responses from the Edmonton Institution, that number more than doubles: 53 per cent said they had experienced harassment and 75 per cent said that harassment came from a co-worker.

Alberta MLA Maria Fitzpatrick pointed out those results during an interview with CBC, when she denounced sexually explicit phone conversations alleged to have occurred between male guards at the Edmonton prison.

A murder charge against an inmate at the Edmonton Institution has been stayed

Edmonton's maximum security men's prison is at the centre of allegations of harassment that are now under investigation.

The men were originally suspended with pay, sources say, while the women who were targeted in these conversations were allegedly not told about them for several weeks after they were discovered. Correctional Service Canada (CSC) turned down CBC's multiple requests for interviews, and would only say there is an ongoing investigation. The federal public safety minister's office confirmed at least part of that investigation is being handled by a third party. 

Fitzpatrick worked in CSC for three decades. She said she witnessed a hush-or-hurt culture, where harassment victims often stayed quiet for fear of reprisal.

As a union representative for two different locals over the years, she said, she helped corrections employees in numerous harassment cases, and saw only one complaint end with significant discipline. She said it seemed many managers weren't taking complaints seriously, while others lashed out in response.  

This isn't 'locker-room behaviour'

"I know that the commissioner in corrections absolutely wants this to stop. I think the disconnect is between him and the front line," Fitzpatrick told CBC. "But it needs to be the same message all the way down. And you can't say the words and not do the actions."

Maria Fitzpatrick

MLA Maria Fitzpatrick says she acted as a union representative in many harassment complaints over 30 years in corrections, and saw just one case end with significant discipline. (Michelle Bellefontaine/CBC News )

The CSC did not answer questions about what systems it has in place for harassment victims to report, or whether the Edmonton Institution has a confidential whistleblower office.

Some of the first questions that University of Alberta human rights and labour law expert Wade King said he had, when he first read the story, were about accountability for middle management.

'Comments about people's appearance, their looks ... really start to undermine the idea that women are a credible part of that workforce.' - Wade King, University of Alberta human rights advisor

"Are the managers and supervisors evaluated on their ability to create environments that are free from harassment?" he asked. "And if they're not evaluated on those things, what is their incentive to create an environment that's free from harassment?"

In the recent example at the Edmonton prison, the female guards who were mentioned in a sexually graphic way during the phone conversations were not within earshot to hear the comments. Sources say managers and union leaders often downplayed the risk to the women, saying it was just guys killing time and nothing to worry about.

Harassment graphic - Edmonton Institution

The survey was conducted in 2014 and released in 2015. As of Oct. 31, 2016, 407 staff work at Edmonton Institution, 142 of which are women. There are 252 Correctional Officers at the facility, 63 of which are women. (Blair Clark/CBC)

King said people often underestimate the impact of their words. 

"One of the things about harassment that's often misunderstood is that it's not about the intention. It's about the impact that it would have on a reasonable person," he said. "So for you to say 'I was kidding,' or it's part of our culture, or 'it's not something I meant,' isn't actually a reasonable defence for harassment."

He said casual harassment, without fear of consequences, can often be the most damaging. King believes the fact that some employees felt they had no other choice but to report through the media, is telling — when coupled with the high percentage of reporting rates on the anonymous employee survey.

"To me that's really indicative of a culture of fear, a culture where people don't feel they are protected from retaliation," he said. "Comments about people's appearance, their looks, about why they might have got their job — they really start to undermine the idea that women are a credible part of that workforce.

"And women start to feel unsafe. All of those things come together, to send messages to women that you are in a culture and an environment that doesn't value you."