Canada's prison watchdog exposes violence, sexual coercion in prison

·7 min read

Warning: Some content may be disturbing

Canada’s prison watchdog tabled a scathing report in Parliament Oct. 27 that put a spotlight on violence and sexual coercion behind bars.

Dr. Ivan Zinger, the Correctional Investigator of Canada, called on the Federal Minister of Public Safety and Correctional Service Canada (CSC) to stop ignoring his recommendations.

"I am deeply disappointed by the Service and Government's responses to my latest Annual Report," said Zinger.

“Most recommendations are met with vague and future commitments to review, reassess, or even, in the case of sexual violence in prisons, redo the work that my office has already completed.”

‘Egregious’ use of force

Zinger’s investigation identified what he called “a handful of egregious or inappropriate use of force interventions.”

In one instance, an inmate, while lying naked on his stomach, was subjected to 17 continuous minutes of pain compliance techniques.

Video captured several correctional officers applying pain compliance techniques including ankle torsions, pressure points on his nose and forehead, stepping (full weight) on the back of the inmates’ knees and on his ankles, and rolling a baton on his ankles.

In another incident, a stun grenade was detonated inside an inmate’s cell after guards deployed several grams of pepper spray in his cell.

“The concern I have in this case is the decision to use a weapon of this explosive nature in the small confined space of a prison cell,” said Zinger. “This type of device should only be used in open areas: it is a defensive weapon that is used for crowd control.

“The detonation of a flash bomb in a cell is unsafe and inherently dangerous; in fact, the grenade started a fire in the inmate’s cell, possibly ignited by the flash or intensified by the previous deployment of pepper spray.”

Zinger recommends that CSC immediately stop using stun grenades in closed or confined spaces, including cells.

Dry cell confinement inhumane

The conditions of dry cell confinement are, by far, the most degrading, austere and restrictive imaginable in federal corrections, said Zinger in his report.

A warden can authorize an inmate be put in a dry cell to search for and retrieve suspected contraband from bodily waste.

In one instance, prison staff left an inmate in a dry cell for nine consecutive days.

“No drugs or any other contraband were found,” said Zinger.

He recommends that dry cell placements exceeding 72 hours be explicitly prohibited in federal corrections.

Sexual violence pervasive

Prison sexual violence is a systemic problem that has gone ignored for too long, said Zinger.

Sexual victimization exists in the shadows of penitentiaries and is largely ignored or dismissed as an inevitable consequence of the incarceration experience.

"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. 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. I am bringing these issues from out of the shadows as I believe it is time for the Correctional Service of Canada to have an open and honest conversation about the scope of this problem and what can be done about it."

There are no public statistics, research or academic literature published in this area in Canada. CSC doesn’t publicly report on this problem, doesn’t collect, record or track statistics and has never conducted research in this area.

“It is largely by virtue of this silence and organizational indifference that there are considerable gaps in the Service’s approach to detecting, tracking, responding to, investigating, and preventing sexual coercion and violence.

“An organizational culture that looks the other way is one that passively enables such destructive and predatory elements to thrive,” said Zinger.

His report offered recommendations aimed at bringing this issue out of the shadows.

“I implore federal corrections to take cues from countries who have implemented a bold, zero tolerance approach to eradicating sexual violence from their prison system.

“It is time for CSC to have an open and honest conversation about this problem and what can be done about it.”

Zinger recommended that the Minister of Public Safety, in the next year, introduce a legislative package that endorses a zero tolerance approach to sexual violence in federal corrections and establish a public reporting mechanism to track and respond to these incidents. He said it should be similar to the Prison Rape Elimination Act in the United States.

He also recommended that CSC develop and offer education, awareness, and training programs for all staff and inmates on sexual coercion and violence.

Indigenous over-represented in prison

The report details the disproportionately higher levels of incarceration of Indigenous people, as well as consistently poorer correctional outcomes, higher rates of use of force, lower early release and higher self-injury for Indigenous inmates.

“Custody rates for Indigenous people have accelerated, despite declines in the overall inmate population,” said Zinger. “As I indicated, these disturbing and entrenched imbalances represent a deepening ‘Indigenization’ of the federal inmate population.”

Zinger said the federal correctional system contributed to the problem of Indigenous people being over represented in the prison system. Indigenous offenders are more likely to be placed or classified as maximum security, more likely to be involved in use of force and self-injury incidents, and less likely to be granted conditional release.

Indigenous people reoffend or are returned to custody at much higher levels, as high as 65 per cent for Indigenous men in the Prairie region within five years of release.

Report reads like a ‘medieval torture chamber’

The Congress of Aboriginal Peoples condemned the treatment of inmates outlined in Zinger’s report.

“The stories in this report read like something out of a medieval torture chamber, not a modern correctional institution” said Kim Beaudin, National Vice Chief of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (CAP). “Inmates stuck in cells with no toilets under 24/7 surveillance for weeks on end. Sexual assault without any repercussions. Using explosive devices in confined spaces against prisoners. It’s as much a horror story as a report to Parliament.”

Elmer St. Pierre, CAP National Chief, said they urge CSC and Public Safety to support implementation of the Political Accord between CAP and the Government of Canada, to ensure the voice of off reserve and non-Status Indigenous communities can guide correction and rehabilitation.

CSC may be violating constitutional rights

The Correctional Investigator of Canada’s office intervened in cases or complaints that involved inmate access to the media. In unreasonably denying or delaying an inmate’s access to the media, the CSC may be in violation of recognized democratic principles and constitutionally guaranteed rights.

“An incarcerated person does not forfeit the right to freedom of expression, and the wider public has a right to be informed of what goes on behind prison walls,” said Zinger.

Four recommendations directed at Minister of Public Safety

Zinger, in his report, directed four of his 13 recommendations to the Minister of Public Safety.

The Minister of Public Safety jointly responded to the recommendations on dealing with sexual coercion and violence in federal penitentiaries. The Minister of Public Safety’s office said they have developed a research plan, slated to begin in fall 2020, to begin assessing sexual coercion and violence in federal corrections.

“In collaboration with CSC, Public Safety will collect information and data on the size, scope and impact of this issue, with consideration of vulnerable populations such as inmates with prior trauma, LGBTQ2+, women, and those with mental health issues in order to identify gaps in knowledge.”

An interim report is expected to be finished by spring 2021.

“Public Safety will collaborate with CSC, and others as needed, to ensure coordination with other actions being undertaken by CSC on the issue as outlined in responses to other recommendations in this report.”

In addition, Public Safety Canada will consider an independent study on sexual coercion and violence in prisons.

The Office of the Correctional Investigator is the ombudsman for federally sentenced offenders. It 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.

Lisa Joy, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter / Battlefords News-Optimist

ljoy@glaciermedia.ca

Lisa Joy, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Battlefords Regional News-Optimist