Nova Scotia·CBC Investigates

'Toxic, dysfunctional': Why workers at these federal prisons feel bullied, fearful

CBC News obtained internal workplace assessments at Nova Scotia's two federal prisons that reveal staff are often belittled by management. Employees also believe their safety is in jeopardy when policies aren’t followed and bosses give in to demands from inmates.

Internal workplace reports at Springhill Institution, Nova Institution for Women describe staff concerns

Correctional workers and other employees at Nova Scotia's two federal prisons say they are constantly bullied, harassed and intimidated by management. Internal reports at both institutions were released to staff in March, outlining serious concerns about work environment. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

Employees at Nova Scotia's two federal prisons report widespread bullying, harassment and intimidation — not by inmates, but by their own managers — according to recent workplace assessments obtained by CBC News.

The Corrections Canada internal reports examining the Springhill Institution and the Nova Institution for Women in Truro describe the work environments as "toxic, dysfunctional and having a very low morale."

One worker at Nova Institution — Atlantic Canada's only federal women's prison — says, in reality, it's even worse.

"Toxic is too light and fluffy. It's a cesspool in Nova Institution. It's really, really bad and it's been going on for several years and it's just gotten worse," the person said in an interview.

The internal document for Nova Institution says there is a staffing crisis, with approximately 30 per cent of correctional workers on extended sick leave.

According to the workplace assessments, correctional officers at Springhill Institution and Nova Institution for Women think their 'safety is jeopardized by allowing inmates to feel they are in control.' (Angela MacIvor/CBC)

The assessments were done in February by Jacques Vanasse, a retired bureaucrat at the Correctional Service of Canada, who interviewed staff members in person and over the phone.

As part of a CBC News investigation, four employees of the Correctional Service of Canada spoke about their experiences at both prisons on the condition their identities be concealed.

All said they feared they would be disciplined or fired for speaking out, and that an investigation would likely be triggered to determine who talked to the media.

Springhill Institution is a medium-security prison with approximately 380 employees and the capacity to hold 636 inmates.

Nova Institution is the only women's prison in the Atlantic region, ranging from minimum to maximum security for up to 99 inmates, and staffed by approximately 185 people.

'Witch hunts'

The workplace reports also reference how staff believe they're constantly investigated for "punitive" reasons, and they're "deemed guilty at the onset."

"They feel investigations are witch hunts seeking to blame employees, and that investigations are the only way management pays attention to [correctional officers]," writes Vanasse in the Springhill assessment.

Both reports list a slew of other problems, including security concerns, policies not being followed, nepotism, lack of return-to-work accommodations and a general climate of fear.

"When probed to find out if the fear was perceived or real, most responded that the fear was very real and cited examples of reprisal, bullying, intimidation and harassment in the work place," Vanasse writes.

Safety jeopardized

At Springhill Institution, security concerns focus on the impression that management often "gives in to inmate complaints."

"This leads frontline staff to feel that their safety is jeopardized by allowing inmates to feel they are in control, especially when inmates threaten staff and remain at the institution," said Vanasse. 

It used to be not that long ago that if somebody was caught with a brew, then they would go to segregation... And it was a deterrent for a lot of individuals.

Frontline employees expressed in the report that "brew" continues to be produced, and that it "leads to dangerous behaviours." Brew or "prison hooch" is an alcoholic beverage covertly made from fruit and bread.

"Brews have gone up big time. I mean we're finding brews constantly down in the units," said one Springhill correctional officer in an interview.

"It used to be not that long ago that if somebody was caught with a brew, then they would go to segregation for overnight or even two days and then be released back to their unit. And it was a deterrent for a lot of individuals."

According to the internal report, approximately 30 per cent of correctional staff at the Nova Institution for Women in Truro, N.S., are on extended sick leave. (Patrick Callaghan/CBC News)

In recent years, Correctional Service of Canada has scaled back its use of segregation, also known as solitary confinement, following a court ruling that deemed it unconstitutional.

The Springhill report states that staff believes there are "irregularities in the management of segregation and that management does not take staff safety seriously." At Nova Institution, employees also expressed that segregation is "not used when required."

Unresolved issues

The report's author also referenced two incidents at Springhill that are "still very much an issue for a large number of staff."

One was a training course on morals and ethics that left staff thinking they would be disciplined for sharing opinions, according to Vanasse.

The "kitchen incident of 2017" also appears to haunt many employees. According to employees who talked to CBC, inmates protested a policy change by refusing to leave the kitchen and even threatened to hold employees hostage.

"Some individuals had a hard time with it, and some of them had to go home for a while which is understood because it's when you lose control over something like that it becomes a very scary place," said one worker.

Women's prison

The report for the Nova Institution states the morale shifted about five years ago, when "a number of changes occurred, such as the loss of stability in senior management positions, two deaths in custody and a departure from the women-centred approach."

In 2015, Camille Strickland-Murphy and Veronica Park died months apart while serving time in Nova.

After the workplace report was completed, 28-year-old Samantha Wallace also died in custody on March 2 after being transported to hospital.

Employees at Springhill Institution cited the 'kitchen incident of 2017' as an unresolved workplace issue. According to employees who talked to CBC News, inmates protested a policy change by refusing to leave the kitchen and even threatened to hold employees hostage. (Dave Irish/CBC)

According to one employee at Nova, female inmates at the prison aren't being properly supported.

"How is that happening with the staff in there, when it is such a bad horrible atmosphere to work in? There's harassment in there. There's racist comments made, and bullying," she said.

"How are we setting an example to them when there are staff that are behaving that way, and managers that are behaving that way?"

Recommendations

Both reports list several recommendations, which include hiring conflict management consultants and talking with staff rather than investigating every incident. Vanasse also recommends that when investigations are required, they should be done by people who aren't in "conflict of interest situations."

In addition, he suggested that assistance be provided to Nova to resolve its staffing crisis.

In a statement, the Correctional Service of Canada said it takes the findings seriously.

"We are committed to address the issues of concern to offer a positive work environment to all staff," said spokesperson Shelley Lawrence.

"We support the recommendations of these assessments and are taking steps to address the issues raised. Since the reports were shared with staff at the end of March, we have begun our efforts to appropriately address the issues specific to each institution."

The statement also says the Correctional Service of Canada does not tolerate harassment.

'Rat line'

Lawrence said a respectful workplace campaign has been launched and resources have been added to support harassment prevention co-ordinators across the country. 

A confidential tip line for employees to report misconduct is also in place, which employees told CBC is commonly referred to as the "rat line."

It was implemented close to two years ago following a report at the Edmonton Institution, which revealed a toxic workplace culture filled with fear harassment and bullying.

Correctional Service of Canada employees in Nova Scotia believe that calls to the "rat line" prompted the workplace assessments to be done earlier this year.

Union reaction

Jeanette Manuel-Allain of the Union of Safety and Justice Employees (USJE) said the findings in the report didn't surprise her. USJE represents parole officers, program and administration staff, supply services and tradespeople at the prisons.

Manuel-Allain said her union has been telling management about these problems for years.

Jeanette Manuel-Allain, regional vice-president of the Union of Safety and Justice Employees (USJE), says the findings in the report didn’t surprise her. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

"I'm not so sure that they were convinced that it was as bad as it was," said Manuel-Allain. 

"Having it in black and white in the report, I think, confirms what we've been raising all along, and they can't ignore it anymore."

The Union of Canadian Correctional Officers declined comment.

About the Author

Angela MacIvor is CBC Nova Scotia's investigative reporter. She has been with CBC since 2006 as a reporter and producer in all three Maritime provinces. All news tips welcome. Send an email to cbcnsinvestigates@cbc.ca