'Cesspool of cruelty, corruption and violence': Advocates call for inquiry at Edmonton prison

'Something rotten is occurring at the Edmonton Institution, and it's been going on for far too long'

Posted: October 31, 2018
Last Updated: October 31, 2018

Several lawyers say a public inquiry is needed to address the abuse and neglect of inmates at Edmonton Institution. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

Prisoner rights lawyers are calling on Canada's correctional investigator to hold a public inquiry into the "cesspool of cruelty, corruption and violence" at the Edmonton Institution.

Earlier this week, a CBC News investigation revealed inmates at the Edmonton facility were intentionally harming themselves at higher rates than at any other maximum-security facility for men in Canada.

Brook McCargar, 31, for one, has been locked up in solitary confinement for more than 2,000 days — or 5½ years — since his sentence began in 2012. More than half of his time in segregation was in Edmonton.


The prison in the Alberta capital already faces a rash of allegations that have led to seven staff dismissals, criminal and internal investigations, and a number of lawsuits by guards and inmates.

Former female prison guards accuse co-workers of sexual assault, torture and discrimination, and guards are accused of pitting prisoners against each other in a fight club.

Defence lawyer Tom Engel urged prison watchdog Ivan Zinger to use his power under legislation governing the Correctional Service of Canada to call a public inquiry. CBC spoke to four more lawyers who have represented inmates at Edmonton Institution and support the move. 

Defence lawyer Tom Engel says attempts to fix problems at Edmonton Institution through persuasion and negotiation haven't worked. (Trevor Wilson/CBC News )

"If there was ever a time to use it, it's now," said Engel, who argued that years of recommendations by the correctional investigator have not been effective. "Persuasion and negotiation has never worked."

He said a public inquiry would allow guards to be subpoenaed and provide evidence in camera while protecting them from lawsuits or dismissal. It would also show the public  "what has been going on at the Edmonton max and what steps the government have taken to correct that, which in my view have been completely inadequate," said Engel.


In 2010, Edward Snowshoe committed suicide at the Edmonton Institution after spending more than five months in segregation.

Former inmate Matthew Hamm was released back into the general population in August 2016 only after he managed to get his case in front of a Queen's Bench justice who agreed his segregation was unreasonable.

Civil lawyer Avnish Nanda currently represents five inmates involved in lawsuits that accuse guards of abuse and unlawful placement in administrative segregation for periods of up to 800 days.

"You can thread all of the court decisions, all of the internal investigations, the fatality inquiries over the last two or three years that really demonstrates something rotten is occurring at the Edmonton Institution, and it's been going on for far too long," said Nanda.

"We don't even know the full extent of the issue because it's all been done in secret, in the dark, so we need to open it up so the public can have a clear understanding of what occurred there, what the issues were and how to solve it."

Lawyer Avnish Nanda says the full extent of the problems at Edmonton Institution aren't known because they're addressed in secret. (Nanda Law)

In 2013, a coroner's jury in Toronto ruled the self-inflicted choking death of Ashley Smith while in segregation at the Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, Ont. was a homicide. The jury called for indefinite solitary confinement to be abolished.


The federal Liberal government recently unveiled a bill that if passed would end the practice of isolating offenders for 22 hours or more a day.

Defence lawyer Derek Anderson said requests for help by clients who struggle with addiction or mental health problems are consistently not addressed at Edmonton Institution.

"It seems that they have a history of only responding to concerns when those concerns are brought out into the public," said Anderson. "How many people need to die? How many people need to suffer serious harm?"

How many people need to die? How many people need to suffer serious harm? - Lawyer Derek Anderson

The result of failing to provide offenders with the help they need is that "it bleeds out into the community," said Anderson.

"We're releasing people who have years of resentment and frustration at being denied the help that they need, out into the public again, and no better off than when they were first taken into custody."

'Negotiation and compromise'

In an email, Zinger said the legislation that gives him the power to hold an inquiry has not been used since it was enacted in 1992, and would entail significant expense.


"The vast majority of the concerns raised on complaints by inmates are addressed at the institutional level through discussion, negotiation and compromise," said Zinger. "Proceedings of this nature would substantively transform the office and undermine our ability to resolve inmate complaints against the service in a fair, informal and expeditious manner."

In a statement, Correctional Service of Canada said Edmonton inmates are provided with the mental health supports they need, either in-house or in a hospital environment at a psychiatric facility in Saskatoon.

A dozen staff at Edmonton Institution have been fired, suspended or quit as part of its effort to address staff misconduct and other challenges at Edmonton Institution, CSC wrote.

"We will continue to take concrete steps to address the issues of concern and will monitor the outcomes to ensure that initiatives put in place are relevant and contribute to a positive workplace free of harassment and discrimination," the email said.



Andrea Huncar

Andrea Huncar reports on human rights and the justice system. Contact her in confidence at andrea.huncar@cbc.ca