Explosive allegations against male prison guards contained in lawsuit

Four females who work or have worked as prison guards at the maximum-security Edmonton Institution have launched a $43.4-million lawsuit against the Correctional Service of Canada and the Union of Canadian Correctional officers, alleging waterboarding, sex assault and sexual harassment.

4 female guards allege constant harassment, waterboarding and sex assault in $43.4M lawsuit

An unidentified female correction officer inside a federal prison. Four former and current female guards at the Edmonton Institution are filing a $43.4-million lawsuit against Correctional Service of Canada and the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers for sexual assault and other transgressions. (Correctional Service of Canada/Flickr)

After more than eight years as a prison guard at the maximum-security Edmonton Institution, "Jessica" stopped wearing her body armour to work.

According to a statement of claim filed with the Court of Queen's Bench of Alberta, by January 2016, "Jessica was suicidal.... She would hope that an inmate would stab her to end her ordeal."

Every day she thought about driving off a bridge, about trying to make it look like an accident so she wouldn't bring shame on her family.

According to the court document filed last week, "Jessica is in hiding because she still lives in fear of reprisal from her abusers and from the CSC (Correctional Service of Canada) management."

She no longer works at the Edmonton Institution. But she has joined three other former and current female guards in filing a $43.4-million lawsuit against Correctional Service of Canada and the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers.

None of the allegations have been proven in court. No statements of defence have been filed to date.

The four plaintiffs allege they were harassed, bullied and assaulted by male corrections officers for years while they worked at the Edmonton Institution. (Correctional Service of Canada/Flickr)

Jessica is not the woman's real name. She and the other three were given pseudonyms "due to the confidential and secretive nature of law enforcement work, especially that within Corrections," the court document says. 

The women are described as "dedicated, hard-working, high-performing, long-term employees to CSC" who were "nevertheless harassed and discriminated against by CSC management, by colleagues and by union officials," the document says.

In the 45-page court document, male prison guards accused of "outrageous" conduct are referred to as John Doe #1 through #6. It suggests the prison "is a workplace rife with discrimination, harassment, bullying, abuse of authority and sexual assault."

The four plaintiffs detail repeated failed attempts to get help or protection from management or the union, alleging some of the biggest abusers "all had prominent positions in the union and for the most part still do."

Long-standing toxic culture

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

At that time, CSC said it had suspended a number of employees and had launched an independent investigation.

So far, six employees — correctional officers and managers — have been terminated as a result of the independent investigators' findings and disciplinary hearings.

To date, no criminal charges have been laid as a result of those findings, according to an Edmonton Police Service spokesperson. But the police investigation is still ongoing.

The allegations prompted a response from Minister of Public Safety Ralph Goodale on Monday. 

"There is absolutely no room and no tolerance for behaviour of the kind that has been alleged," he said speaking to reporters in Regina.

"The investigation will be thorough both within the Correctional Service of Canada and externally by police and appropriate consequences will follow," he said.

In an emailed statement Monday morning about the lawsuit, CSC would only say, "We do not tolerate harassment in our organization and we take this matter very seriously." 

The Union of Canadian Correctional Officers also refused to comment, saying only it condemns all forms of harassment.

Sexually harassed daily, says Jessica

Jessica was only 22 when she began working at the Edmonton Institution in May 2007. She had little training, weighed only 110 pounds and "constantly lived in fear of the inmates," according to the statement of claim. The claim says her superior, John Doe #1, took her under his wing. He was the union vice-president at the time, a 265-pound military veteran.

The court action seeks $43.4M for general, aggravated and punitive damages, loss of income and promotions, plus pain and suffering. (CBC)

"He acted in a paternal fashion towards her, telling her that he would protect her from inmates and any internal issues," the lawsuit states.

But the relationship became toxic. Jessica says she felt like his hostage because she relied on John Doe #1, but his abuse traumatized her.

"For nearly ten years, Jessica was sexually harassed daily," according to the statement of claim. "Mr Doe #1 made a habit of stirring her and other female officers' unattended drinks with his penis and not telling them until after they had drunk from it, then laughing.

"Mr. Doe #1 would often pull his genitalia out of his pants and parade himself around the office, causing Jessica to run out of the room. He would chase after her with his penis in his hand," the document adds.

Lawsuit alleges everyday sexual violence

In 2014, John Doe #1 got a new work partner who is referred to as John Doe #6. Almost immediately, Jessica relied on John Doe #6 as a platonic protector. But he began to buy her gifts and the lawsuit alleges he eventually began to stalk her. He allegedly left sex toys in her car.

By December 2015, the lawsuit states the two men "continued to abuse her, but they ceased pretending to be her friend.... Jessica was subjected to verbal abuse and/or sexual violence every day at work."

John Doe #1 and John Doe #6 are accused of committing the following assaults:

  • "Waterboarding her and laughing about it".
  • Putting her in choke holds, throwing her against the wall and choking her.
  • Grabbing her by the hair and slamming her face into hard surfaces.
  • Handcuffing her to chairs.

It is unclear if the jobs of John Doe #1 and John Doe #6 have been terminated, although the lawsuit states: "Certain individuals have been singled out for their specific misdeeds against Jessica." ​

(The other John Does are accused of various transgressions, including not responding to the women's workplace complaints. John Doe #3 allegedly "asked various inappropriate questions" about one woman's personal life.)

A year ago, Jessica was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, unable to cope with being inside a prison, according to the statement of claim. "The abuses she suffered have ruined her career and left her incapable of living her life," the document says.

Andrea: Guard handcuffed her to a chair

Andrea also claims she was targeted by John Doe #1. He convinced her to become the union secretary soon after she started work at the institution in 2009, and he was "constantly pressuring her into meeting outside of work," the claim says.

She insists she rebuffed his romantic attempts, but found out later he told multiple colleagues they were in a sexual relationship, even suggesting that he was the father when she got pregnant. Andrea alleges John Doe #1 "handcuffed her to a chair using her own restraints and threatened to sexually assault her."

When she finally reported John Doe #1 for sexual harassment, she claims a male supervisor chalked it up to "a relationship gone bad" and allegedly told Andrea later that "she was unworthy of humane treatment because she is Serbian."

The statement of claim alleges the mother of two was dismissed without cause or notice in March 2017, and the union refused to grieve her termination.

Samantha on stress leave

Samantha is currently on stress leave after nearly 20 years on the job at the institution. She now suffers from panic attacks, depression, insomnia and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

"She has been openly gay and has been married to another woman for the majority of her service," according to the court document. "Unfortunately this has made her a target of bullying, harassment, discrimination and reprisals from fellow corrections workers."

Samantha complained about her treatment many times over the years, but says the typical response she got was: "Boys will be boys."

John Doe #1 "did not want to work with her," according to the court document.

The final straw came when Samantha was told she had been the subject of vulgar phone conversations recorded between two correctional officers.

Sarah struggles to come to work

Sarah is a married mother and former teacher who graduated at the top of her law enforcement training class.

She began working at the institution in 2009 and claims she avoided John Doe #1. She even passed up a promotion to stay out of his way, because she was "terrified" of him and his crew.

Sarah suffered from anxiety and depression while she was on maternity leave, and could only return to work part-time as a clerk. She brought forward a number of concerns to the union and management, but claims none of them were dealt with appropriately.

According to the statement of claim, Sarah "struggles to come to work daily" and, "Wearing the CSC uniform cost Sarah her dignity."

$43.4M sought in damages

The lawsuit was filed by Edmonton lawyer Jeffrey O'Brien, who declined comment when contacted by CBC News. He also declined to make the four plaintiffs available for interviews.

The court action seeks $43.4M for general, aggravated and punitive damages, loss of income and promotions, plus pain and suffering.

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Janice Johnston

Court and crime reporter

Janice Johnston is an investigative journalist with CBC Edmonton who has covered Alberta courts and crime for more than three decades. She won a national Radio Television Digital News Association award in 2016 for her coverage of the trial of a 13-year-old Alberta boy who was acquitted of killing his abusive father. You can reach her at janice.johnston@cbc.ca.