'A powder keg': Guards describe tension inside Edmonton women's prison

Guards at a women's prison in northwest Edmonton are speaking out about reports of trouble at the federal institution.

Long hours, confrontations with inmates and mental-health emergencies leading to staff burnout, one guard says

Correctional officers at the Edmonton Institution for Women say tensions inside the prison are spiralling out of control. (CBC)

Tensions inside the Edmonton Institution for Women are high and rising, correctional officers say in the wake of concerns raised by the Elizabeth Fry Society.

"The Edmonton Institution for Women is a powder keg," one veteran correctional officer told CBC News Wednesday. "That place is going to blow."

The officer said tensions at the prison are higher than she has ever experienced.

None of these people know the reality.- Correctional officer, Edmonton Institution for Women

The officer, who has a decade of experience with Corrections Canada, asked not to be named due to concerns about repercussions from her employer.

To protect her identity, she will be referred to as Susan.

Susan talked to CBC News after the Edmonton Elizabeth Fry Society publicly raised concerns about conditions at the prison.

There's more to the story than what prisoners' rights advocates see during their visits to the facility, she said.

"I'm not trying to badmouth these people. They do all have a good place to help people and address issues that need to be addressed," Susan said. "But none of these people know the reality."

'What are we supposed to do?'

The number of assaults by inmates has spiked in the last six months, Susan said. She is aware of at least five attacks on staff since August.

Last month, an incident dragged on for six hours as inmates in maximum security made "shit bombs," she said.

"They put poop in a bottle with water to use against staff."

The majority of assaults Susan responds to involve women suffering from mental illnesses and inmates younger than 30.

"This younger population that we have, they're aggressive and they're violent and they don't care," she said.

Recent policy changes have compounded the issue by limiting how correctional officers can protect themselves and inmates, she added.

The federal government this summer imposed limits on solitary confinement, mandating that federal prisoners cannot be held in isolation for more than 15 days.

Segregation cells are used for prisoners who pose a security threat, or to protect them from fellow inmates.

Correctional officers at the women's prison in Edmonton have few other options to control violent inmates, Susan said. The only weapon she carries is pepper spray.

"Our hands are very much tied," she said.

"People that make these decisions or put these influences on us have no idea. They have no idea what it's like being there. They don't know."

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

Inmates with mental illnesses further complicate her work, Susan said.

Mental illnesses are twice as common in female inmates as they are in male inmates, according to a study published this summer by Canada's correctional investigator.

More than half of women in federal prisons across Canada suffer from poor mental health. In the last fiscal year, eight per cent of all female inmates self-harmed in more than 200 documented incidents.

"When we don't have any other resources to assist a lot of these inmates, what are we supposed to do?" Susan said.

"We fail mental health inmates incredibly. We seriously fail them. We have nowhere for them to go."

'It's scary going to work every day'

Another officer at the prison, who talked to CBC News under the pseudonym Jane, said she joined Corrections Canada five years ago because she wanted to help rehabilitate women.

"The reality though, once I got there, struck me quite fast in that you can't work with people that don't want to be helped," Jane said.

"That's not to say that none of them do — there are success stories and there are people that work quite well with us. But the majority, I think, kind of find life easier inside than they do outside."

Despite rehabilitation programs within the prison, Jane said some inmates need more support than the institution can offer.

"It's scary going to work every day, especially lately, now that the assaults are sky-high," she said.

"That's the job we signed up for but we didn't expect [the rate of assaults to be] as much as it is and we didn't expect to be protected as little as we are."

For instance, she said there are not enough resources for women who have complex mental illnesses that require constant care and supervision.

She struggles to help certain inmates after internal psychiatrists and mental health nurses finish their shifts at the prison, she said.

To take pressure off staff and inmates, Jane said psychiatric wards that can handle female inmates need to open more beds for women.

The Regional Psychiatric Centre in Saskatoon is the nearest facility run by Correctional Service Canada, with a rated capacity for 204 patients.

'These are systemic problems'

The strain on correctional officers at the prison can be severe, a third guard — who will be referred to as Ashley — told CBC News Wednesday.

At home, Ashley said she often jumps when touched.

Long hours, confrontations with inmates and mental-health emergencies have led to burnout and stress leave among staff, she said.

"That stuff gets to you," Ashley said. "There's this vicious cycle. People can't keep up.

"It's an environment where you're supposed to be big and tough and not let stuff bother you," she added.

"We're people and we're humans, too, and we're trying our best."

By speaking about her experience, Ashley said she hopes to prompt a review of policies and working conditions at the prison.

"These are systemic problems that start at the top and work their way down," she said.

CBC News has reached out to Corrections Canada, but the department has yet to comment on the situation.