Canada's prison guards are essentially being left to their own devices when it comes to treating inmates with basic human respect, according to an internal survey obtained by The Canadian Press.
The "ethical climate survey" of Correctional Service Canada staff included a question about "treating offenders with respect as human beings."
However, responses to the question from the survey's 2,200 participants were dropped from the final report because of a "lack of unanimity."
"Most probably, the [corrections] community does not share a common understanding and expectations regarding respect toward offenders," the report states.
"Apparently, social values around respect toward offenders have not been encouraged within CSC to the same extent as values of respect toward the organization and co-workers – leaving this aspect to each individual's discretion."
The document says without proper training, employees rely on "what is deeply ingrained in their beliefs" to mould how they treat offenders.
The report's analysis notes several respondents brought up concerns about staff who abused their power – a problem it says could be tackled through workshops focused on values and ethical issues.
The findings open a window on the mindset of correctional officials at a time when a coroner's inquest into the 2007 prison death of troubled teenager Ashley Smith has exposed how a mix of personal action and bureaucratic procedure shape treatment of the incarcerated.
Ms. Smith choked herself to death inside her segregation cell at the Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, Ont., while guards, ordered not to intervene, stood watch outside.
Kim Pate, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, said the apparent lack of agreement from staff on humane treatment should serve as a shot across the bow of prison authorities.
"It should be a significant wake-up call to Correctional Service Canada, and instead of burying it or ignoring it and taking it out of the survey, some sort of concerted effort to address this should be in order."
Ms. Pate said the survey underscores what she called a shift under the Harper government toward punishment of prisoners and away from rehabilitation.
"One of the most consistent complaints I've heard from staff, particularly [those] who work with women in prison, is that they don't receive a lot of training in how to support and assist prisoners – that the priority seems to be on how to use force," Ms. Pate said.
A corrections spokeswoman said the prison service is studying the report.
"The survey results raise important issues for employees, supervisors and senior managers across the Correctional Service of Canada and will inform actions at all levels," Sara Parkes said in an e-mail.
"CSC continues to work to apply its values in the workplace and integrate them into its practices and processes, as well as to support and strengthen the ethical culture in the workplace."
Ms. Parkes also said employees are given training on ethics and workplace values when they are hired and again on appointment to specific jobs.
The poll of workplace values follows a pair of earlier ethics questionnaires done in 2007 and 2009. A subsequent audit determined results from those surveys, which drew on much smaller sample sizes and found similar results, were not acted upon at most participating correctional institutions.
The 2012 voluntary survey was administered online to staff ranging from guards patrolling cell blocks to top-level bureaucrats carving out policy in Ottawa.
In all, about 12 per cent of the corrections work force responded. The results are considered accurate within five percentage points, 19 times out of 20.