Ontario's ombudsman warns jail guards are brutalizing inmates and then covering up the abuse.
In a 135-page report released Tuesday, André Marin slammed what he called the "code of silence" around the problem.
His report, titled The Code, said some correctional staff have committed "brazen acts of violence" and that they have destroyed or falsified evidence and intimidated colleagues who tried to blow the whistle.
Marin made 45 recommendations urging the government to end what he calls a "dysfunctional culture."
He also said the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services must focus on "malignant" peer pressure among some correctional officers.
"It is important to remember that inmates, regardless of why they are incarcerated, are human beings deserving of respect, dignity and humane treatment," Marin said.
Marin points out many correctional officers obey the rules on the use of force.
However, over a three-year period between 2010 and 2013, the ministry confirmed excessive force was used in 26 of 55 cases it investigated. Altogether, a total of 108 staff were disciplined. Thirty-one were fired, and among those, four face criminal charges and one has been convicted.
Labelled as 'rats' for breaking code
"Staff who breach this code become victims themselves," Marin said. "They are labelled 'rats,' ostracized, treated as pariahs, subject to direct and covert harassment and threats, and their personal safety is put in jeopardy."
Marin said it was the ministry's processes that allow the behaviour to continue and urged government officials to "eradicate the code of silence that threatens the security of inmates and staff alike."
"Focus on the malignant peer pressures that continue to influence the attitudes and actions of some correctional officers," he said.
Among Marin's 45 recommendations to improve inner workings of correctional institutions were suggestions to:
- Reduce opportunities for staff to collude to conceal unlawful force, tamper with evidence, and intimidate witnesses.
- Reinforce the integrity of investigations by restricting access to evidence and preventing information from being shared.
- Improve video surveillance in correctional facilities and the way video evidence is preserved.
- Clarify authorized defensive techniques for correctional staff and ensure they are properly trained in de-escalation of conflict and dealing with inmates with mental illness and special needs.
Marin's report is based on 180 interviews with correctional officers, whistleblowers, inmates and ministry officials at all levels since August 2011.
Minister of Correctional Services Madeleine Meilleur said her department was "taking this issue very seriously" and would be making changes over the summer to adopt the recommendations.
The government is setting up an oversight and investigation unit, and appointing a use-of-force auditor to enhance oversight and accountability.
A zero-tolerance policy for any behaviour that threatens inmate safety or intimidates other guards will also be implemented.
Meilleur said the majority of correctional staff is good but a single incident of abuse is "one is too many."
Warren (Smokey) Thomas, the president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, welcomed Marin's recommendations.
"We have said to the employer for decades: 'You have the tools at your disposal to deal with problem staff and we want you to deal with problem staff'," Thomas said.