The discovery of sexually explicit phone recordings between male guards at an Edmonton prison was mishandled, and likely put some staff members at risk — according to corrections staff with direct knowledge of what happened.
Some Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) employees, whose identities CBC News agreed to protect because they are afraid for their safety and their jobs, raise serious questions over the publicly funded organization's response.
"The guards don't feel safe there. They don't know who they can trust. These are people that they look toward for their safety," said one of the employees.
"It's stressful enough to go into this environment. They didn't sign up for sexual harassment of any type."
The staff accounts have been corroborated by additional information obtained by CBC.
The employees say some male guards at the maximum-security Edmonton Institution were involved in a lengthy string of personal conversations that were recorded on the prison's internal phone system. During those conversations, the sources say, male guards made demeaning sexual comments about some of their female co-workers.
These same sources say the graphic phone conversations were discovered by an internal intelligence worker who was investigating why multiple calls for help from inmates went unanswered during a shift at the prison. Referred to as "cell calls," inmates use this buzzer system to get prison guards' attention and assistance, and an alarm goes off if the call is not answered within one minute.
'CSC is looking into potential misconduct by staff'
The intelligence worker discovered that some guards were on the phone for a significant period of time during that shift. All conversations made using the internal prison phone system are recorded. Sources say listening to the recordings revealed the sexually explicit conversations, and that someone alerted management about them in the summer of 2016.
'We will thoroughly investigate all allegations, regardless of the source.'
- Lori Halfper, CSC spokesperson
But it would be several weeks until some of the women mentioned on the recordings were told about them. They were informed at the end of October. In the meantime, those women had worked alongside the male co-workers who made the demeaning comments, unaware of the situation or the potential risk.
It was unclear at publication time if the CSC had told every female worker who was mentioned in the explicit recordings.
Around the same time that some of the women were informed at the end of October, the sources allege some male guards were suspended with pay. Now, sources say some of the women have been pressured to return to work. It's not clear what the status is of the male guards' suspension.
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Some of the women mentioned on the tapes have been told very little about their content, or the potential risk to them, sources say. The content was characterized by some union leaders and management as typical behaviour for guys killing time, and nothing to worry about.
Victims also had difficulty securing a union representative to support them in talking to management about the recordings. A co-worker who is not with the union agreed to help. That co-worker withdrew after he said he was threatened by another guard.
Sources say that wasn't the only alleged threat related to the sexually explicit recordings. The Edmonton Police Service confirmed to CBC that officers opened a file after a report that some prison guards threatened the safety of a fellow female prison guard by distributing her name and address to inmates.
Multiple requests for interviews with the Edmonton Institution's warden Clovis Lapointe, as well as with local union leaders Sean Whelan and Mike Inkpen and the national head office of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, went unanswered.
CSC spokesperson Lori Halfper sent an email confirming "CSC is looking into potential misconduct by staff at Edmonton Institution. We will thoroughly investigate all allegations, regardless of the source."
Ombudsman slams behaviour, CSC response
Howard Sapers is the ombudsman for federally sentenced offenders, an office that investigates individual and systemic issues through independent oversight of the Correctional Service of Canada.
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He called the Edmonton situation "highly corrosive," "outrageous" and "potentially dangerous," and said it "should attract serious consequences."
"It's troubling on a number of levels. One of those is the inability to do the job and do it in a way that they feel safe," Sapers said.
He said his office has recently been looking at the issue of harassment between staff, because of the way it can negatively affect their ability to keep prisons running safely.
"When you have a system that does not respond well to concerns around gender issues or cultural issues, then you have a system that makes it very, very difficult for the Correctional Service of Canada to fully discharge its mandate," he said.
"And unfortunately, the disciplinary process itself is often not equal to the circumstances that it's dealing with. We've seen correctional officers disciplined in an extremely superficial way, for serious breaches of conduct, in some cases that have even resulted in the death of an inmate."
Alberta NDP MLA Maria Fitzpatrick worked in corrections for about three decades, and was a union representative for two union locals.
She said the service has a hush-or-hurt culture, where employees often keep silent about sexual harassment in the workplace because they're worried about a backlash against them.
"Lots of concerns came to me, where people didn't file a complaint because they were so afraid for their personal safety, for their careers," Fitzpatrick said. "It's like 'If I do this, then I'm never going to be able to move ahead.' And that was certainly a valid concern."
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Fitzpatrick described how deep the worry can be for a worker who is the subject of harassment in a prison setting, because guards and other staff rely on their co-workers for their safety when something goes wrong.
In one of the most memorable workplace sexual harassment cases Fitzpatrick worked on with the union, she said a corrections worker awoke to find footprints at each window to her home and received phone calls from her harasser in the middle of the night. The worker was so concerned that she moved, and refused to give the department her home address.
Definition of harassment (from Government of Canada website)
Improper conduct by an individual, that is directed at and offensive to another individual in the workplace, including at any event or any location related to work, and that the individual knew or ought reasonably to have known would cause offence or harm. It comprises objectionable act(s), comment(s) or display(s) that demean, belittle, or cause personal humiliation or embarrassment, and any act of intimidation or threat. It also includes harassment within the meaning of the Canadian Human Rights Act (i.e. based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, family status, disability and pardoned conviction).
"How can you be at home and feel safe, how can you go to work and feel safe, when somebody you should be able to trust is behaving like this?" Fitzpatrick asked.
She hopes these new sexual harassment allegations at the Edmonton Institution can be a turning point.
"I think it really speaks to a culture … that that kind of behaviour is OK," she said.
"Because you're saying it really isn't important that you did that. And until that whole culture takes it seriously, and takes action that shows we're serious about this not going on, it will continue."