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Today, the 46th annual report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator was tabled in Parliament. In his report, the Correctional Investigator of Canada, Dr. Ivan Zinger, drew attention to problems in the workplace environment and corporate culture of the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) that creates adverse conditions for inmates. Zinger’s remarks underscored CSC’s obligation to ensure working and living conditions of staff and inmates are free of practices that undermine human dignity.
Dr. Zinger’s report includes three case studies, two of which involve investigations of entrenched and problematic staff cultures at male maximum-security institutions. As Dr. Zinger pointed out: “Fixing problematic and ingrained elements of a staff culture that is resistant to change or reform is not within my mandate. However, when misconduct between or among staff is allowed to fester, when non-compliance becomes normalized in the workplace, as I found in the Edmonton and Atlantic Institution investigations, there is bound to be attendant negative effects for the inmate population. In those instances, I have both a duty and responsibility to report and act upon them.”
The Edmonton Institution (EI) case summary reports on an Office investigation into a series of degrading and humiliating inmate-on-inmate assaults that occurred between August and October 2018. Dr. Zinger’s report found that correctional staff and management tolerated an established history of bullying, harassment and assaults directed by a number of inmate groups against a sub-population of protected status offenders. Evidence shows these attacks were planned and orchestrated events that escalated over time and that EI staff and management consistently looked the other way when incidents occurred, failing in their legal duty to intervene and protect a vulnerable population.
OCI and subsequent CSC reporting establish that the repetitive nature of these incidents can be traced backed to a staff culture at EI that one independent human resource assessment found ran on fear, suspicion, mistrust, intimidation, harassment, bullying and abuse of power – among staff members. Tolerance for these behaviours, including use of vulgar, threatening and disrespectful language, conditioned how staff regarded and responded to inmates and contributed to the environment and dynamics that perpetuated and condoned group violence. Disturbingly, the constant and repeated barrage of assaults on protected status inmates, which included throwing food, bodily fluids, garbage and other degrading and humiliating acts, went largely unreported by staff. No disciplinary or corrective measures were taken against the aggressors, even though they were known to staff. The incidents themselves were initially identified and brought forward to EI management by this Office at the end of August 2018. However, senior levels of CSC management only took action after the Correctional Investigator brought forward incontrovertible video evidence to the Commissioner on November 9, 2018.
Dr. Zinger insisted that the recurrent (and abhorrent) nature of these incidents must be placed in context of CSC’s larger organizational culture. He pointed out that personal interventions by the previous Minister of Public Safety and Commissioner to address the ‘culture of impunity’ at EI were initially launched in November 2016. Since then, a succession of local and national initiatives have been undertaken:
- An independent organizational assessment, follow-up evaluation reports and attendant action plans.
- Striking of a renewal and recovery Committee at EI.
- Dismissal or suspension of several staff members.
- A 1-800 confidential tip line for employees to report misconduct or mistreatment among staff.
- A National respectful workplace campaign.
- Appointment of a new senior management team at EI.
None of these initiatives, alone or in combination would seem to have fully rooted out the source(s) and manifestations of staff misconduct and inmate mistreatment at Edmonton Institution.
The Correctional Investigator summed up his EI investigation in these terms: “That these incidents took place at an institution where the workplace culture is known to be especially problematic should have added to the sense of urgency and duty to act. No human being, regardless of status or crime, deserves to be treated in such a cruel, callous and degrading manner.”
The Atlantic Institution case study, which is based on an OCI review of four years of use of force incident data, reveals a recurring and troubling pattern of non-compliance in use of force incident management at this facility. Despite numerous interventions and recommendations by the Office over the years, use of force reviews continue to indicate deficient accountability, inability to learn from or correct poor performance, and failure to implement or sustain reforms over time. Incident management has not demonstrably improved as evidenced by increased Emergency Response Team deployments, continued over-reliance on inflammatory agents (pepper spray), high number of inmate allegations of improper or excessive use of force and historically elevated rates of segregation use at Atlantic Institution. The Correctional Investigator found little evidence to indicate that implementation of a new engagement and intervention model, introduced in November 2017 following the preventable death of Matthew Hines, has made much of a difference in the manner, rate, severity or level of force used at Atlantic Institution.
The case study identifies an entrenched staff culture, which gives license to a security-first approach that effectively trumps other ways of dealing with inmate conflict or non-compliant behaviour. As the Correctional Investigator stated: “Since Matthew’s death, the reliance on pepper spray to manage tension and conflict in federal prisons, not just at Atlantic Institution but right across the Service, has not significantly abated. The culture, attitude, response and behaviour of the front lines, especially in higher security institutions, appears impervious to reform.”
Dr. Zinger cited other examples that are indicative of a corporate culture that remains overly insular, defensive and resistant to change. They include:
- Inertia in addressing substandard quality and quantity of food served in federal prisons. (A recent internal audit of Food Services fails to acknowledge that the manner in which ‘cook-chill’ meals are prepared – boiled, frozen and then reheated – jeopardizes the well-being of inmates or unnecessarily puts the safety and security of the institution in jeopardy).
- Introduction of a standardized “random” strip-searching routine/protocol in women’s corrections that is neither trauma-informed nor gender-responsive.
- Elevated rate of use of force incidents involving mentally ill inmates residing in Regional Treatment Centres (psychiatric hospitals).
- Warehousing of long-serving chronically, palliative or terminally ill elderly inmates who do not pose an undue risk to society.
- Security-driven practices and a zero-tolerance approach to illicit drug possession and use behind bars severely erodes confidence and limits participation in what should be an exclusively harm reduction and health-focused prison needle exchange program.
Dr. Zinger concluded his public remarks acknowledging and encouraging efforts underway across the Service to create a more respectful and healthy workplace. He stated, “I am encouraged that CSC is taking steps to ensure a positive work environment. Harassment, intimidation and bullying are not acceptable, in any workplace. The working conditions of staff are the living conditions of inmates, and modeling appropriate behaviour is key to ensuring our prisons are safe, rehabilitative and humane environments.”
As the ombudsman for federally sentenced offenders, the Office of the Correctional Investigator serves Canadians and contributes to safe, lawful and humane corrections through independent oversight of the Correctional Service of Canada by providing accessible, impartial and timely investigation of individual and systemic concerns. The 2018-19 Annual Report, along with a Backgrounder and summary of the report, are available at www.oci-bec.gc.ca
View the Annual Report here
Download a PDF version here