Tensions mounting at overcrowded Edmonton women's prison, national advocacy group warns

The Edmonton Institution for Women is overcrowded and at a breaking point, warns an advocacy group for women in prison.

Elizabeth Fry Society urges Corrections Canada to rethink strip searches, segregation, mental-health support

The Edmonton Institution for Women is overcrowded and nearing a breaking point, warns the Elizabeth Fry Society. (CBC)

The Edmonton Institution for Women is overcrowded and at a breaking point, warns an advocacy group for women in prison.

Volunteers that regularly visit EIFW are reporting conditions "that seem to us like the perfect recipe for disaster at the institutional level," Kassandra Churcher, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies (CAEFS), told CBC News.

The last time they visited, they thought they were on the brink of a riot.- Kassandra Churcher, Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies

"The last time they visited, they thought they were on the brink of a riot," Churcher said.

Churcher contacted CBC News after two inmates escaped the federal women's prison in northwest Edmonton last Monday. Both women have been recaptured.

"It's going to put a lot of pressure on them being criminalized again when, in actuality, maybe we'd all try to escape if we knew the situation they were living in," she said.

Elizabeth Fry societies are hired on a contract-basis by Correctional Services Canada to run programs and halfway houses.

CAEFS staff travelled from Ottawa to Edmonton Tuesday to investigate concerns raised by the local Elizabeth Fry Society.

​"What I found was very concerning to me," said Savannah Gentile, the CAEFS director of advocacy and legal issues. "The level of human rights abuses really struck me."

'The level of human rights abuses really struck me,' says Savannah Gentile, director of advocacy and legal issues with the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

Gentile toured the prison Wednesday, interviewing women in minimum, medium and maximum security areas, as well as in segregation cells.

In half a dozen cases, she crouched next to meal slots in cell doors because no rooms were available for face-to-face conversations.

"We made a point to put our hands in to shake hands and that's probably the only human contact that they've had," Gentile said.

"It's a tough moment because some of the issues that they're facing are horrendous and you want to tell them that you're going to fight for them and fix everything but you really can't."

'It's not a space for healing'

Gentile said she was most troubled by the treatment of women classified as maximum security inmates, especially those with mental illnesses.

One woman had attempted suicide after being placed in segregation, Gentile said. Instead of moving the woman to a psychiatric ward at a hospital, Gentile said she was kept on suicide watch in the same cell.

"It's not a space for healing," Gentile said. "It's a very isolating experience.

"Those women are just left in a cell with themselves, with their mental health issues, to struggle on their own."

The Edmonton Institution for Women is designed to accommodate 167 women in minimum, medium and maximum security settings. (Google Maps)

Another woman told Gentile she was pepper-sprayed while curled up in the fetal position, after refusing a pat-down search by guards.

Use of force at the women's prison is one of the most common grievances by inmates.

Of the last 50 grievances tracked by the Elizabeth Fry Society in Edmonton, eight were about use of force. Five more were about treatment by staff at the facility.​

Many women also raised concerns about strip searches, Gentile said.

Some are strip-searched every time they return to the prison from rehabilitation programs in the city, such as addictions counseling.

During strip searches, the women are asked to open their mouths and ruffle their hair. They have to remove their tops and lift their breasts. 

After putting their shirts back on, the women are told to take off their pants and underwear.

"They have to squat, cough, bend over, spread their cheeks," Gentile said. "It's an incredibly humiliating and degrading process."

Some inmates, especially those who have been sexually abused in the past, experience strip-searching as sexual assault, she added.

"A woman can't really make the decision to say, 'I'm not going to go to this program because I don't want to be strip searched.' Because then she's not working her correctional plan," Gentile said.

One prisoner told Gentile she was strip-searched up to four times a week, every time she returned from church services outside the prison.

'They're not just criminals'

Elizabeth Fry societies draft advocacy letters to Corrections Canada after each visit to a federal women's prison, Gentile said.

Concerns about segregation, strip searching and the lack of access to mental health support have gone unaddressed in recent years, she added.

"If we want to tackle these issues, we need to start pushing," Gentile said.

"Politicians aren't going to change things until we start to message that we care about these issues, that we are committed to these issues and to seeing change happen."

Rehabilitating women through programs that promote healing will improve community safety once they are released from prison, Gentile said.

Many will return to their former communities, she added, where they left behind families and children.

"Lean in, look at the population," she said. "It's really hard to hate people close-up. They're not just criminals."

Investigator weighs in

The Office of Canada's Correctional Investigator in August singled out the Edmonton Institution for Women in a letter to Corrections Canada, raising "concerns about the current conditions of confinement."

The prison is one of five federal institutions for female inmates in the country, with a rated capacity for 167 inmates.

An investigation this summer revealed the prison's segregation unit was at capacity, with four women on high suicide watch.

"To compound the issue, the secure unit is experiencing population pressures operating at 133 per cent, well over the rated capacity for the unit," the letter states.

Four women were double-bunked in the understaffed secure unit, including women with "significant mental health problems." 

The Office of the Correctional Investigator sent a letter raising concerns about EIFW to Corrections Canada on August 21, 2017. (Office of the Correctional Investigator)

The letter is addressed to Kelley Blanchette, the Deputy Commissioner for Women with Correctional Service Canada.

"Your personal attention to the conditions of confinement at EIFW is required at this time," the letter states.

Conditions at women's prisons in the country should be a priority for reform, Correctional Investigator Ivan Zinger told CBC News.

"I am hoping that the government will respond appropriately," Zinger said. "Some of them are concerns that remain unaddressed and some of them for a long time."

Prison not overcrowded: CSC

In an email to CBC News, Correctional Service of Canada acknowledged the department received the August letter from Zinger's office.

The Edmonton prison is at capacity, but is not breaching policy on overcrowding, wrote spokesperson Jeff Campbell.

Ten double bunks are approved in the secure unit, which was operating at less than 75 per cent capacity during the August investigation.

"CSC takes these concerns seriously and fully reviews and considers any recommendations we receive from external bodies," Campbell said.

The department is conducting a study to determine whether more mental health supports are needed for women in prison, he added.

"Women offenders have unique needs that impact their response to correctional programs," Campbell wrote.

"To address women's needs, our programs and interventions are delivered with a holistic and women-centered approach."

The department is also aware of concerns raised by the Elizabeth Fry Society.

"Most offenders will eventually return to the community," Campbell said. "Upon their release, whether at the end of their sentence or via parole, successful reintegration requires the support of citizens and communities.

"To that end, CSC is committed to engaging community partners and working collaboratively for safe and vibrant communities."