Class action launched by former N.S. inmate alleges sexual misconduct in prisons

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HALIFAX — A former prison inmate in Nova Scotia has filed an application for a class-action lawsuit against the attorney general of Canada for allegedly failing to prevent sexual assault in women's prisons.

The statement of claim filed Wednesday by lead plaintiff Sara Tessier says the country’s six women’s prisons have allegedly perpetuated sexual violence against vulnerable women.

Tessier, a former inmate of the Nova Institution for Women, filed the lawsuit on behalf of herself and other current and former inmates in women’s prisons who have been allegedly subjected to sex-based discrimination by prison staff.

"I know that many women have been traumatized and victimized inside federal Institutions designated for women," said Tessier in a statement. "For this reason, I have stepped up with and on behalf of those who have been harmed."

She alleges that sexual misconduct often occurs in women's prisons under the guise of relationships between correctional officers and inmates, involving the exchange of goods for sexual acts. Tessier says the government is at fault for failing to protect inmates and investigate allegations of sexual assault.

Tessier's lawyer, Mike Dull, says current and former inmates have described a “culture of fear and silence” regarding their attempts to report sexual assaults within the prison system.

"The reluctance of authority to take allegations of sexual offences seriously continues to perpetuate a culture of power imbalances that fail to protect incarcerated women from sexual violence and discrimination," Dull said in a statement.

The lawsuit is seeking several remedies, including general and special damages for pain and suffering and a declaration that the attorney general has been in breach of several of the plaintiffs' charter rights.

Correctional Service Canada said in an emailed statement that it could not comment on the lawsuit because it has not yet been served.

"Correctional Service Canada (CSC) takes allegations of sexual coercion and violence seriously and does not tolerate any breach of the law or CSC policies," spokeswoman Isabelle Robitaille said.

"CSC employees are expected to carry out their duties with professionalism and consistently with the service's policies and mission – and of course, the law. They are expected to act according to legal and ethical standards, and are subject to the rules of professional conduct and code of discipline."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 11, 2021.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Danielle Edwards, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. Previous versions said representatives from the offices of Attorney General David Lametti and Public Safety Minister Bill Blair were not immediately available for comment.