Inmate abuse complaints trigger women's prison investigation

Canada’s prison watchdog is investigating a series of incidents at the Edmonton Institution for Women that resulted in complaints about the use of force by the correctional service.

Reports say pepper spray used in response to ‘security incidents’ at Edmonton Institution for Women

Canada's prison watchdog Howard Sapers is investigating a series of incidents at the Edmonton Institution for Women that resulted in complaints about the use of force by the correctional service. (The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld)

Canada's prison watchdog is investigating a series of incidents at the Edmonton Institution for Women that resulted in complaints about the use of force by the correctional service.

"It's significant enough that it came to our attention immediately, and it triggered an investigative response," Correctional Investigator of Canada Howard Sapers said.

There was tension at the prison beginning Friday Oct. 30 and Saturday Oct. 31 when, according to Sapers, assaults were being planned inside the inmate population.

"There were incidents involving use of force," said Sapers, adding he has received complaints. "And there were some incidents involving self-injury."

Sapers said for safety and privacy reasons, he's unable to reveal the scale of the unrest, any details of what happened or how many inmates may have been affected. But he confirmed there was some minor destruction of property and damage to some individual cells in the institution. There are about 167 inmates in custody at the prison.

While details remain uncertain, Sapers said security incidents can range from as basic as a prisoner being in an unauthorized place to as serious as a riot. In this case, there was no riot and the institution was never out of control, he added.

Sapers said he's looking into reports some inmates refused to follow the orders of correctional staff. A key to the investigation would be to figure out if the incidents that were reported were linked or coincidental, he said.

Use of force under microscope

A major part of his investigation will focus on how many inmates attempted to harm themselves and the response by the institution.

"There are reports that OC spray or pepper spray was employed during the use of force, and we're looking into that," Sapers said.

While it's unclear what set off the problems, early indications are that the prison's response was measured and appropriate, he said.

"My understanding is the service had some concerns, which appear to have been legitimate concerns about the potential for some violence in the institution, and they were taking steps to ensure that didn't happen," he said.

In addition to launching an investigation, Sapers said his staff is now monitoring the situation closely and is in touch with the institution, located at 11151 178th Street, more than once a day.

He described what happened as serious but not extraordinary. Daily bulletins in the correctional service detail between two dozen and three dozen incidents from institutions across the country.

However, reports of disturbances, especially ones involving self-harm, are raising an alarm for the organization that supports women in prison.

"We're extremely concerned; it is the only institution where I have ever witnessed women being pepper-sprayed in my presence even after we had offered assistance," said Kim Pate, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies.

Pepper spray used 'too much'

Pate said she's relieved the correctional investigator is looking into the issue, but thinks on the whole pepper spray is being used on inmates too much across Canada.

"The use of restraints and the use of pepper spray and invasive security measures is too often resorted to when that's what's available to staff," Pate said.

She said regional advocates from Elizabeth Fry are doing what they can in response to the issue, in addition to following up on other tips they're receiving from inside the prison.

"Someone within the institution was calling indicating that a woman was on a hunger strike." Pate said.

Sapers didn't put any timeline on how long the investigation will take. But he said if any recommendations are warranted, it's possible a report could be released publicly.

Since beginning the investigation there has been no escalation or recurrence of any problems inside the facility, he said.

Other than saying violence or any breach of its policies isn't tolerated, Correctional Service of Canada officials won't talk about any of the reported incidents. The Privacy Act prevents discussing any cases involving inmates trying to harm themselves.



To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.