Blair promises strategy to curb sexual violence in prisons after watchdog warns of systemic abuse

The federal government is promising a new strategy to curb sexual violence and coercion in prisons after Canada’s correctional investigator warned of systemic abuse behind bars.

Correctional investigator says victims don't report incidents out of fear of retaliation

Correctional investigator Ivan Zinger is calling on the federal government to do more to stop sexual violence in prisons. (Shutterstock / cunaplus)

The federal government is promising a new strategy to curb sexual violence and coercion in prisons after Canada's correctional investigator warned of systemic abuse behind bars.

In his annual report tabled in Parliament today, prison watchdog Ivan Zinger said sexual victimization exists in the "shadows" in penitentiaries and is largely ignored or dismissed as an inevitable consequence of incarceration.

"My investigation confirms that sexual violence is a pervasive but underreported problem in federal prisons. We know that sexualized violence and abuse thrive in a culture of silence or organizational indifference," he said in a media statement. 

"I was disturbed to find considerable gaps in the Correctional Service of Canada's approach to detecting, investigating and preventing sexual coercion and violence behind bars."

Zinger called on CSC to have an "open and honest conversation" about the scope of the problem.

Responding to Zinger's report, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said offenders should be able to serve out their sentences in dignity and without fear.

"A zero-tolerance approach to sexual coercion and violence is fundamental to CSC's operations to protect the physical and mental health and overall safety of those who live and work within federal correctional institutions," he said in a media statement. 

Blair said CSC and the Department of Public Safety will research a strategy to detect, prevent and respond to sexual coercion and violence in federal institutions. The study will look at the impact of sexual violence on vulnerable populations, such as inmates suffering from trauma or mental health issues, women and LGBT offenders. An interim report is to be completed by spring 2021.

Blair will also write to the House of Commons public safety committee asking MPs to undertake an independent study and report on sexual violence in prisons.

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair is promising a new strategy to curb sexual abuse in correctional facilities. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Right now, CSC is not required to report publicly on incidents of sexual abuse involving federal inmates. Zinger said his investigation found that CSC has never conducted any national research or studies in this area and has no stand-alone policy on how staff should respond to and prevent sexual abuse.

Fears of retaliation, retribution

Zinger said victims don't often report incidents of abuse because they fear retaliation or re-victimization by the perpetrator, whether that perpetrator is another inmate or a staff member.

"They face the risk of not being believed, being ridiculed or even punished for reporting coerced sex. Most incidents are not investigated, and rarely or ever reach the courts," he said.

Zinger reports that the corrections service saw 72 incident reports or board of investigation reports related to sexual abuse between 2014 and 2019.

Police were contacted in 90 per cent of those cases, but charges were laid in only 12 per cent of the incidents — usually because the victim did not want to pursue charges.

Zinger said he learned through interviews with inmates and staff that such incidents are largely under-reported.

One person said that staff often "turn a blind eye" to abusive dynamics between inmates, including so-called "pimps and prostitutes or pets."

"As one inmate representative put it, 'The culture of silence is deafening in here,'" the report states.

"Inmates indicated that they do not feel comfortable reporting, and that this would require a basic level of trust between inmates and staff that just simply does not exist. Be it as a result of the power imbalances, or high staff turnover, many factors makes it difficult to build or maintain relationships of trust between staff and inmates."

Incidents under-reported

Zinger said CSC has no coordinated approach to detecting and managing repeat or chronic perpetrators. He said alleged perpetrators are often shuffled around an institution, or transferred to another prison, without anyone taking steps to prevent future abuse.

Zinger called for legislative measures to endorse a zero-tolerance and a preventive approach to sexual abuse and violence in prisons and said CSC should be required to publicly report and respond to incidents. 

He is also urging the federal government to fund a national study by experts to determine the scope of the problem.

"Sexualized violence is a systemic problem in prison, and is not tolerated in any other part of Canadian society. It is time that we took steps to eradicate it from our prison system," he said.

CSC Commissioner Anne Kelly said the problem of sexual violence and coercion in correctional facilities is "very complex."

Officers trained to respond

In a statement, Kelly said correctional officers are trained to detect and deal with all types of criminal behaviour in prisons, including sexual coercion and violence, and are required to report all incidents. An offender management system identifies those who are predatory and those who are vulnerable, she said.

Emilie Coyle, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, said incidents of sexual violence against women inmates are under-investigated and under-reported.

"This investigation is further evidence that prisons are not — and never will be — safe places. The persistent and inescapable danger of sexual violence and coercion in federal prisons, emphasized by the [Office of the Correctional Investigator] report, is appalling," she said. 

In addition to the special investigation on sexual abuse in prison, Zinger highlighted a number of other concerns, including the over-representation of Indigenous people in prison, the use of force by correctional officers and access to medical assistance in dying (MAID).

Zinger said three offenders in federal custody have been allowed to obtain medical assistance in dying; one such case took place inside a corrrectional institution. He urged the government to impose a moratorium on MAID in prisons while it looks for more humane alternatives on compassionate grounds.

"That MAID is allowed to be carried out in a penitentiary setting, under so-called 'exceptional circumstances,' seems inconsistent with the legislation's intent to provide Canadians with a legal option to end their life with dignity at a time and place of their choosing," he wrote in the report. "It is simply not possible or desirable to provide or meet those intents in context of incarceration."