Prison guards at several Ontario and Quebec jails punch, knee or slap inmates in surveillance videos exclusively obtained by CBC News and Radio-Canada, underscoring the ongoing push to blanket all correctional facilities with surveillance cameras.

The five different videos were obtained through court applications and arbitration hearings launched in Ontario and Quebec.

In one video, an inmate who tosses his shirt at a guard while he is changing is grabbed by the neck and thrown to the ground. In another, a prisoner is led down a hall and, on reaching a doorway, is struck in the head, then has his head slammed against a wall four times and is punched repeatedly and kneed. Following the beating he is seen cowering in fear.

In a third video, a guard slaps an inmate across the face.

"It's terrorism. I mean these guys are abusing their authority and they're terrorizing people who are under their control," said Kevin Egan, an Ontario lawyer who represents prisoners who have been abused by guards. 

"The purpose of our prison system is to rehabilitate. And it may be that it's not just inmates that need to be rehabilitated, but the guards."

In all of the cases depicted in the videos obtained by CBC News, the guards involved in the abuse were either fired or criminally charged, or both.

Surveillance lacking

Video surveillance has become an important tool for deterring and investigating excessive force against inmates, especially since a growing inmate population and overcrowding in Canadian jails and prisons are leading to a steady increase in violence.

However, in his latest report, the federal prison watchdog reveals that video surveillance procedures in federal penitentiaries, meant to deter exactly this kind of violence, failed nearly 70 percent of the time in 2012.

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Howard Sapers, the federal correctional investigator, says it's probably not a coincidence that some alleged prison beatings occur in spots where there's no surveillance cameras.

"Camera malfunctions, incompatibilities between various video-camera systems, fragmented and poor quality use of force recordings are commonly reported," correctional investigator Howard Sapers says in the report. "A compliance rate of only 33 per cent in this area is especially concerning given the need to exercise professionalism, restraint and proportionality in physical confrontations with inmates."

The federal government said it’s working to improve compliance.

"CSC works with staff to address these issues of non-compliance," Melissa Hart, a spokesperson for the Correctional Service of Canada, wrote in an email. 

Efforts are underway to improve and add video surveillance in federal prisons and provincial jails. Ontario, for example, is spending up to $15-million over three years to update its cameras.

"The modernization of Ontario’s correctional services is a top priority," Greg Flood, a Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services spokesperson, said in an email. “A multi-year plan has been developed to retrofit all correctional facilities with standardized upgraded CCTV systems and associated software platforms."

Critics say it's not happening fast enough — and in the meantime guards can abuse the so-called blind spots that remain.

"Sadly, we see incidents in those blind spots," Sapers said. "And I'm not convinced that it's entirely, you know, just a coincidence that we see some use-of-force incidents or some alleged assaults taking place in those areas in institutions that are blind to video surveillance." 

Abuse alleged

Last summer, during a lockdown at the Elgin Middlesex Detention Centre in London, Ont., Chris Reibling says he was held down and beaten by guards in his cell.

"I call it the devil’s playground. That's what I call it," he said in an interview. "It's just an insane place. It’s got a crooked, crooked mentality."

Reibling alleges guards pinned him down in his bed with a riot shield and then beat him on his feet, legs, buttocks and testicles using keys and the end of a pepper spray gun.

He was being held on robbery charges at the time and has since been released.

The incident wasn’t caught on video. Reibling said video cameras have since been added, and it’s helped.

"I’ve heard a couple of the guards say things like, 'Oh, you’re lucky these cameras are here. I’d beat the shit out of you now but we can’t.' "

Reibling is suing for $2 million, claiming the overcrowded and understaffed provincial institution is managed with a "climate of fear." According to his statement of claim, violence and mistreatment at the hands of fellow inmates and guards is rampant.

"As the ministry is currently developing its statement of defence, and as this matter will be before the court, it would be inappropriate to provide comment," Correctional Services spokesperson Flood said of the case.

"It should be noted that this government believes that correctional officers are vital to maintaining law and order in our society, and to the administration of justice."

"I sympathize with the guards. I think they have a very tough job, but they can go home at night," prisoner lawyer Egan said. "Obviously [the inmates] aren't all the nicest guys and they probably say inappropriate things, but prison guards should be trained to deal with people in a non-violent way."

If you have tips on this story, or other investigative ideas, please email investigations@cbc.ca