Edmonton·CBC Investigates

Prison guards accused of using inmates as weapons to cover up alleged sexual harassment

Two major investigations are underway and several employees have been suspended after what the federal corrections service calls “very serious” allegations of harassment, intimidation and inappropriate employee conduct by staff at Edmonton’s maximum-security prison.

Officials suspend at least 7 people without pay amid investigation

Some staffers say 'double dooring' — confining a guard between two doors, sometimes alone with inmates — is one form of intimidation that is common at the Edmonton Institution maximum-security prison. (Correctional Service of Canada/Flickr)

Two major investigations are underway and several employees have been suspended after what the federal corrections service calls "very serious" allegations of harassment, intimidation and inappropriate employee conduct by staff at Edmonton's maximum-security prison. 

Meanwhile, CBC News has uncovered new details about allegations of workplace sexual harassment at that facility, and the dangers women can face for reporting it: namely, implied or direct threats to their safety, their families and their lives. 

As a result of some very serious allegations, several staff actions were implemented pending an investigation.- Véronique Rioux, Correctional Service of Canada

Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) commissioner Don Head flew to Edmonton's federal prison in mid-September to personally announce both a criminal investigation and a second administrative investigation.

CBC News has learned that at least seven employees — including some managers and acting managers — were walked off the property and suspended without pay around the same time as Don Head's announcement. 

Sources tell CBC News the suspensions are linked to allegations of sexual assault, assault, harassment and employee misconduct. 

For its part, CSC confirmed by email that in September 2017 "as a result of some very serious allegations, several staff actions were implemented pending an investigation." Spokesperson Véronique Rioux described them as allegations of "harassment, intimidation and inappropriate conduct made by staff at Edmonton Institution (EI)." 

In September, the Correctional Service of Canada set up a confidential tip line for prison employees to report misconduct. This image of the poster for the tip line was provided to CBC News by a confidential source.

The Edmonton Police Service said it has opened an investigation into "criminal offences which allegedly occurred within the Edmonton Institution." In an email, spokesperson Cheryl Sheppard went on to say that CSC itself reported these allegations to police earlier this year. 

No charges have been laid.  

CSC said it has contracted outside firm Persidia Security Consulting to lead the second investigation. One current and one former CSC executive are on that team. 

In September, CSC also set up a confidential tip line for employees to report misconduct.

CBC News uncovers new details

Over the course of a year, CBC News interviewed a total of seven past or present EI employees who say they have direct knowledge of sexual harassment, threats and intimidation by male staff against female employees at the facility. They say it's been happening for several years.

CBC News has agreed not to reveal their identities because they say they are afraid for their safety. An eighth person withdrew from participating in this story, even anonymously, because she said she believed her life was in jeopardy.

The sources say female staff in general — and female prison guards in particular — are targeted by some male co-workers for degrading comments, jokes, gestures and sexual advances.

The sources say new female recruits are often singled out for harassment by some male managers and guards with more seniority. They say the men ask the women out, ask them for sex or sexual favours, comment on their bodies and appearance in a sexual way and even bring up favourite sexual positions.

This reported behaviour is considered so common and so difficult to report that sources say employees have come to view it as inevitable and ingrained in the culture. Sources say most women who experience harassment are so afraid for their safety and have so little confidence in CSC's reporting process that they either transfer or leave corrections entirely.

Inmates as weapons for intimidation

The sources described several barriers to reporting allegations of workplace sexual harassment at EI. The most oppressive appears to be implied or direct threats to personal safety.

As a maximum-security prison, the EI houses some of Canada's most dangerous offenders. The prison guards are trained to deal with and anticipate riots or attacks from inmates. They rely on their colleagues to support them in emergencies, to watch their backs when they are escorting inmates through the grounds, and to get them safely through the locked doors that are operated by fellow guards in special control rooms.

In that environment, it's apparently possible to use inmates as weapons for intimidation. Sources say it's typical for perpetrators of harassment to hint to a victim that if she doesn't keep quiet, they may "miss" seeing her get assaulted by an inmate.

They say the practice of "double dooring" is also common. That's when a person operating doors from one of several special control rooms purposely fails to open the next set of doors for a guard to pass through into a new prison unit. When the second set of doors is unopened, the guard is left locked between two sets of doors in a confined space, sometimes alone with one or more inmates. "Double dooring" is against protocol, yet the sources reported experiencing or witnessing it regularly.

The threats allegedly continue outside the prison walls too. Sources say some staff have had their cars keyed or their tires slashed. They say they have also talked to employees who claim they were followed home and received direct or implied threats to their kids or their families.

Lack of confidentiality, threats are concerns

The internal complaint process is also a barrier to reporting harassment, according to the seven past or current employees interviewed by CBC News.

They say the managers, supervisors or union representatives that a victim would be asked to report to are often friends with the alleged perpetrators.

They say there is also little guarantee that their complaints would remain confidential. Sources described several examples of managers or colleagues identifying people who reported harassment, and then singling them out for consequences like not responding to requests for backup.

A corrections officer escorting a handcuffed offender inside the Edmonton Institution, posted by Correctional Service of Canada to its Flickr page. The maximum-security prison has a maximum inmate capacity of 228. (Correctional Service of Canada/Flickr)

The CSC declined CBC's multiple requests for an interview. In an email exchange, Rioux said the organization cannot comment on specific allegations for fear of jeopardizing the ongoing investigations.

Rioux said there is a formal process in place called the Employee Protection Protocol, to ensure the safety of staff. "There is also the possibility of reassigning employees who do not feel comfortable in their current work environment," she wrote.

Months-long CBC News investigation

CBC News first reported on allegations of workplace sexual harassment between prison guards at the EI in November 2016, in relation to sexually explicit phone calls that were recorded.

After that story aired, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale condemned the alleged harassment and confirmed that a third party would be called in to conduct an independent investigation.

The CSC said in an email to CBC News last week that the third-party investigation has been completed, the allegations were founded and, as a result, three employees were terminated.

In June, CBC News obtained an explosive internal report that outlined in great detail a culture of fear and harassment among staff within the EI. That report, which described how five or six "kingpin" staff and managers had seized control of the facility and abused their power to stay on top, was commissioned by the head of the CSC and carried out by a third-party investigator.

That story inspired at least one female staff member at another facility to go public with allegations of workplace sexual assault.

At the time that CBC published details of the internal report on harassment, Goodale's office said that the minister had directly instructed CSC commissioner Head to send him his plan for making sure the workplace was free from harassment and sexual violence.

In an email to CBC News, a spokesperson for Ralph Goodale said that when the minister received CSC's report in the fall, he told Head it wasn't good enough. 

"[Goodale] has asked CSC to bolster its plans," Scott Bardsley wrote.

"Harassment is completely unacceptable. [The minister]  is committed to ensuring that the Correctional Service of Canada's (CSC) workplace is free from harassment and sexual violence."


Marion Warnica is a journalist with CBC News. She has lived in and reported from Rwanda, Thailand, Peru and Australia — and is the recipient of two national RTDNA awards for investigative journalism. marion.warnica@cbc.ca twitter: @warnicam