Call for public inquiry into 'toxic, violent' Edmonton Institution

Only a public inquiry will clean up the “toxic, violent” subculture at the Edmonton Institution, says the president of the Canadian Prison Law Association. 

Edmonton defence lawyer Tom Engel is calling on Public Safety Minister Bill Blair and correctional investigator Ivan Zinger to launch a full-scale inquiry into what he calls “systemic abuse and mismanagement” at the maximum security federal prison. 

Zinger’s annual report released in February documented the dysfunction at Edmonton Institution.

“It is more than just a case of a few bad apples or isolated incidents,” Zinger wrote.

“The service continues to face several lawsuits and ongoing allegations of harassment, abuse of power, neglect and intimidation from current and former Edmonton Institution employees as well as inmates.”

Edmonton criminal defence lawyer Tom Engel is calling for a public inquiry into the dysfunction at the Edmonton Institution. (CBC)

In a January 2019 internal employee survey, 17 workers claimed they were sexually assaulted by a co-worker.

Almost one-quarter of the 65 respondents said they had been sexually harassed by a co-worker, and more than half said they worked in a “culture of fear.” 

They weren’t afraid of the inmates; they were afraid of their co-workers.

“Nothing changes,” Engel said. “We get the reports and the recommendations are made and nothing happens.”

Engel thinks only a public inquiry will get to the root of the problem. 

“The correctional investigator has the power to subpoena witnesses, have them testify under oath, subpoena records.”

‘Big old can of worms’ 

Zinger’s annual report also details inmate-on-inmate assaults. An investigator from his office obtained video of a group of protected-status inmates being repeatedly pelted with hot food and other objects as they were moved from one section of the prison to another in October 2018.

The report states correctional officers knew about the attacks and did nothing to stop them.

In an email written Thursday to CBC News, Zinger said six correctional officers were disciplined as a result of the incident. Three were docked pay, while the other three were given verbal or written reprimands.

Zinger said the four managers identified were not disciplined.

“I agree that the situation at Edmonton Institution is very problematic,” Zinger wrote. 

But he said the decision on whether or not to call a public inquiry is not his to make.

“Whether a public inquiry under the Inquiries Act is necessary is a matter for the minister of public safety to decide,” Zinger wrote.  “The minister also has the authority to direct the [Correctional Service of Canada] to address concerns and implement recommendations from my office or other sources.”

Phone calls and emails to the public safety minister’s office were not returned. 

The issue of a public inquiry was not addressed in a statement to CBC News from CSC, but a spokesperson noted the senior management team has made it a priority to make sure there’s a positive and healthy work environment for their employees. 

“Culture change can take time but we are absolutely committed to it,” the spokesperson wrote.

Tom Engel remains frustrated. 

“Well, it’s a big old can of worms that’s been opened up already, but nothing’s being done about it,” Engel said. “That’s the problem.”

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