The Ontario women’s prison under the microscope for the 2007 fatal self-strangulation of troubled teen Ashley Smith is grappling with new allegations that a male guard was smuggling drugs in exchange for sexual favours from at least one female inmate.
CBC News has learned that officials at the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ont., suspended a guard this fall and are now conducting an internal investigation based on anonymous complaints.
The guard in question is related to a senior manager at the prison. A prison spokesperson wouldn’t discuss the case other than to confirm Corrections is dealing with the matter internally and has not notified an outside police service.
"Due to an ongoing investigation and the Privacy Act, it would be inappropriate for the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) to comment on the specifics of this allegation," CSC spokesperson Wendy Smith told CBC News in an email.
"CSC takes this situation very seriously and expects staff to act according to the highest legal and ethical standards."
The Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, which represents guards at federal prisons, also refused to discuss the allegation and issued an online statement: "Until we have all of the results of the investigation, the union doesn’t comment on individual cases."
Advocacy group asks for independent review
One inmate contacted CBC News claiming that she has told both prison authorities and the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies (CAEFS) that the guard in question was caught while engaged in a sexual act with a prisoner. CAEFS says it is taking the allegations seriously because they also received similar complaints from other women.
Safety 'first priority'
CBC News made several requests to CSC about the guard, his status, and the threshold CSC uses to determine whether to suspend an employee when an inmate levels a serious allegation. Spokesperson Wendy Smith said she is limited in what she can discuss in order to respect the employee’s privacy rights.
"All CSC employees are subject to the same rules and must follow CSC's Standards of Professional Conduct and Code of Discipline. If an employee falls short of the standards outlined within these policy documents, corrective and sometimes disciplinary action may result.
"CSC does not tolerate any breach of its policies and all allegations regardless of the source are thoroughly investigated by CSC because the safety of the public, staff and inmates is our first priority."
"I’ve heard from three people that this is an issue in the prison," Kim Pate, CAEFS executive director, told CBC News, describing a situation "involving at least one, possibly more women, who others have alleged have been approached or have been exchanging sexual acts for either drugs or tobacco."
Pate said her organization not only alerted Corrections but also the Correctional Investigator — the ombudsman for Canada’s prison system — in early November.
Pate was hoping for an external review, she said, fearing prison officials might minimize the sexual allegations and treat them as labour or discipline issues, rather than potential crimes.
"We never find out what happened. So we don’t necessarily have the confidence," Pate said. "Certainly in the past, even where it has been verified there was either sexual harassment or sexual assaultive behaviours, it’s not always considered harassing or assaultive by Corrections."
Pate says some inmates may think sex with guards is consensual but the power structure between guard and prisoner renders every case an instance of sexual abuse.
"In most cases [of guard corruption] though, the only time we see criminal charges laid is when they actually intervene to seize drugs and where [stopping drug smuggling] has been seemingly the primary issue – not the sexual abuse of prisoners."
Howard Sapers, the Correctional Investigator of Canada, confirms he is reviewing the information from the CAEFS and is considering whether to order his own investigation. "I would caution people not to jump to any conclusions. This is not the first allegation of this sort that we’ve heard. If it's founded, it would not be the first incidence of it being founded," said Sapers. "It would also, however, not be the first time that such an allegation has proven to not to be true."
Pate acknowledges these are difficult allegations for prison officials to examine, and that this is not the first such allegation by an inmate to provoke a suspension and trigger a CSC investigation. She says it reignites her organization’s objections to Corrections Canada's employment of male guards in prisons for women, due to the potentially greater risk of sexual abuse and allegations of abuse.
"If any investigation determines wrongdoing or potential illegal activity, appropriate action is taken," CSC spokesperson Wendy Smith said Friday in an email statement. "In all cases where an individual is suspected to be involved in criminal activity, police are advised."
Prison already under microscope
Grand Valley has been under intense scrutiny since the 2007 death of Ashley Smith, a troubled 19-year-old who died in a segregation cell, repeatedly choking herself with a piece of cloth tied around her neck.
In that case, Waterloo regional police did get involved and initially charged four front-line prison staff with criminal negligence causing death for standing by and not intervening. However, the Crown withdrew those charges after testimony emerged the guards were acting on direction from senior managers not to enter Smith’s cell unless she stopped breathing. It was the managers’ belief the troubled teen was "playing a game" for attention.
In that case, senior Correctional managers conducted discipline investigations and suspended, but later reinstated, several front-line staff as well as the warden. They also fired the deputy warden, but did not pursue criminal charges.
Ashley Smith’s family appealed to the RCMP to investigate potential criminal negligence by the senior managers but the RCMP declined, concluding it was not in their "jurisdiction" and referred the family back to Waterloo police.
Waterloo police say the RCMP did not pass on the family’s complaint and confirm they did no further investigation into the actions or directives issued by Grand Valley managers.