Prison watchdog raises concerns again about conditions at Edmonton Institution

Correctional Investigator Ivan Zinger wrote about problems at Edmonton Institution in his annual report. (Nathan Gross/CBC - image credit)
Correctional Investigator Ivan Zinger wrote about problems at Edmonton Institution in his annual report. (Nathan Gross/CBC - image credit)

Correctional Investigator Ivan Zinger has once again singled out the Edmonton Institution in his office's annual report, describing "oppressive" confinement conditions and staff shortages observed by his staff last year.

The federal maximum security prison was the only one in the country to have its own section in the annual report, which is dated June 30 but was released publicly last week.

As CBC News reported in January, staff from Zinger's office visited the prison over three days about a year ago and spoke with prisoners, staff and managers.

The investigators found the prison was overpopulated and understaffed, with no programs or meaningful work opportunities for inmates. More than 250 prisoners shared a single computer visitation station and the wait for accessing mental care was a year long.

Zinger said Correctional Service of Canada Commissioner Anne Kelly responded to his concerns on Dec. 8 and assured him that corrective measures were underway.

These measures included reinstating population management and citizen advisory committee meetings, establishing an inmate welfare committee, installing more video visitation consoles and addressing staff recruitment and retention problems.

"Though the situation at Edmonton Institution is still far from ideal and the systemic problems brought forward are far from resolved, the collaboration and responsiveness of the commissioner in trying to address office findings and concerns is encouraging," Zinger wrote in his annual report.

He said his office will continue to closely monitor the prison and intervene as necessary.

Edmonton Institution was also mentioned in a section of the report about discrimination and differential treatment.

One individual, who had spent time at the Edmonton prison, reported intentional and pervasive discrimination and racism toward Black prisoners and staff.

In a response to the report, Kelly wrote that she would continue to try to improve correctional environments. She suggested CSC create an action plan addressing the relationship between use-of-force and systemic racism against Indigenous and Black individuals and expand staff diversity training that is "oriented to practical and lived experiences of Black people."

In a statement on Tuesday, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said he looked forward to seeing CSC "step up efforts to support the mental wellness of inmates" and that he would ensure progress is made on the issues mentioned in the report.

Union sees problems persist in Edmonton

James Bloomfield, prairies regional president for the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, said conditions for staff at Edmonton Institution have declined since June.

He said there has been a lack of stability in management and officers are demoralized. Between 20 and 30 per cent of them are on leave due to mental and physical injuries sustained at work, he added.

He called the correctional investigator's report "just the tip of the iceberg," and said the investigators would have heard a fuller story had they spoken with the union.

The union is asking the commissioner to train managers and improve communication between management and staff.

"We'd like to see some tangible actions at that site that prove that they are making it better for their staff," he said.

Consider rehabilitation goals: advocate  

Chris Hay, executive director of the John Howard Society of Alberta, said further punishing inmates goes against the goal of helping them become law-abiding citizens.

"If you treat someone like an animal, they will behave like an animal," he told CBC News on Wednesday.

He said inmates need social and community supports to succeed once out of prison so limiting video call opportunities doesn't make sense.

He said it would be unrealistic to expect that people locked up in cells for 21 hours a day, with no access to programs, could successfully reintegrate into society upon their release.

"I am not condoning their behaviour," he said. "I'm just saying, put on your logical thinking cap and think about the outcomes you want to achieve."

Hay said he was happy to see CSC has announced some changes and hopes the correctional investigator follows up to see if conditions improve.