The Correctional Service of Canada does not keep track of whether its employees have been accused of sexual assault, or whether criminal charges have been laid, a data gap that survivors and experts say is allowing a culture of abuse to flourish inside women’s prisons.
At least three guards at women’s institutions have been charged in recent years with sex crimes against inmates. Advocates say the three cases are only the tip of the iceberg, noting the problem is fuelled by a failure to believe prisoners who bring forward allegations, a power imbalance inside institutions and an unwillingness by authorities to address sexual misconduct in federal prisons.
One case, involving multiple women and incidents dating back to 2013 at the Nova Institution for Women in Truro, N.S., came to police through the intervention of a sitting senator. In 2019, a guard from Okimaw Ohci Healing Lodge near Maple Creek, Sask., was convicted of sexually assaulting two inmates. Another former correctional officer was charged last year in connection to an alleged assault at Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ont.
When The Globe and Mail asked CSC whether any other guards had been charged in recent years, the agency, which operates six women’s prisons across Canada, says it records disciplinary actions against employees, but only in the broad categories of insubordination, deportment and negligence.
“Therefore, we are unable to provide specific data related to misconduct involving allegations of sexual assault,” spokesperson Marie Pier Lécuyer said. “Criminal charges that may have been laid or pursued are not captured in our data.”
The lack of data is leading to calls for the government to intervene, possibly by adopting a U.S.-style law that makes prisons financially accountable for abuse within their walls.
“The biggest gap, I think, is the fact Corrections has avoided for years and years and years to actually gather some evidence of prevalence,” said Ivan Zinger, the Correctional Investigator of Canada. “By not taking it on, they perpetuate this culture of silence and organizational indifference.”
In May, 2019, three women separately sued the Correctional Service of Canada and six others have since launched their own legal efforts. They believe the agency knew, or ought to have known, that a male guard at the Nova Institution for Women in Truro was subjecting female prisoners to unwanted sexual advances.
Initially, CSC said it had called the Truro Police Service to investigate the allegations as soon as it learned of them. But the agency had not done so. CSC later admitted its first step was to conduct an internal investigation before police were contacted.
In fact, Senator Kim Pate said she later confirmed with Truro police that she was the first to report the female prisoners’ allegations of sexual misconduct at the prison to the force.
Ms. Pate, an advocate for marginalized and institutionalized women, has earned the trust of a number of prisoners. She was the long-time director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies and was appointed as an Ontario senator in 2016 in recognition of that work.
Ms. Pate said she received calls independently from two female prisoners at Nova who alleged they had been assaulted by a male guard named Brian Wilson.
“I was concerned when I was notified … by the women that no apparent action had been taken,” she said.
One of those women, who cannot be identified because of a court-ordered publication ban, told The Globe that she was approached by Mr. Wilson in late 2013 and he came uncomfortably close to her and tried to kiss her.
She said she reported the incident, but nothing was done. Mr. Wilson was temporarily moved to another area of the prison so they wouldn’t be in proximity, but later allowed back.
She said she was transferred to another institution and requested in 2018 to move back to Nova to be closer to her children. She said she was told she could only move back if she apologized to Mr. Wilson. She did so in tears and returned to Nova, where, she said, after a few weeks, “things started happening again.”
She alleges Mr. Wilson would ask her to show her body parts. She finally called Ms. Pate, who contacted the police.
Another complainant, who also cannot be identified because of a publication ban, said she too was sexually victimized inside Nova.
In an interview, she said she reported to the warden in late 2018 that another prisoner had been allegedly having sexual relations with Mr. Wilson and he was bringing the woman cigarettes. She recalls feeling “dumbfounded” by the response, saying the warden referenced staffing levels and did not pledge to address her concerns.
She said she went on to keep track of things Mr. Wilson would do, but that this put her in a compromised position because “then it left me open to be one of his victims.”
After a year-long investigation, in May, 2020, the Truro Police charged Mr. Wilson with six counts of sexual assault, six counts of breach of trust and one count of communication for the purpose of obtaining sexual services.
Mr. Wilson entered a plea of not guilty on Feb. 24 and requested a trial by judge and jury, according to his lawyer Derek Sonnichsen.
Mr. Sonnichsen did not provide comment on behalf of his client in response to questions from The Globe. None of the allegations have been proven in court.
CSC spokesperson Isabelle Robitaille said the agency takes matters of sexual violence and coercion “very seriously.” The sentiment was echoed by Jeff Wilkins, national president of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, who said the union condemns any form of harassment or assault by its members.
CSC is developing a directive on sexual coercion and violence designed to focus on prevention by providing training tools for staff and prisoners, Ms. Robitaille said.
Last July, institutional heads were directed to ensure any allegation of harassment or sexual misconduct is immediately reviewed to determine how to proceed and that any allegation of sexual misconduct be referred to police without delay.
Ms. Robitaille said CSC made it mandatory in November of last year that the correctional training program include a component on inmate sexual assault. Recruits are reminded that they are obligated to intervene in these types of situations, she added.
She also said allegations at Nova were investigated and appropriate measures implemented. CSC would not comment further as the matter is before the courts.
Ms. Pate said the very reason she had to call the police was because the women who called her were concerned that nothing had been done to address their allegations at Nova.
“The delay in actually having the police involved means that evidence may have been either purposely or inadvertently lost or destroyed as a result,” she said.
Two months after Mr. Wilson was charged in Nova Scotia, the Waterloo Regional Police Service in Southwestern Ontario charged a 56-year-old corrections officer at the Grand Valley Institute for Women with one count of sexual assault, but no name was released. In July, 2020, CSC said it was aware that the police force had charged a correctional officer. The agency also said the officer had not been in the workplace since 2017.
Mr. Zinger, the Corrections Investigator, said CSC’s failure to collect sexual assault data amounts to further evidence that the agency is not taking the issue of assault seriously and that tracking allegations is essential to understand the prevalence of the issue.
He said the federal government should introduce legislation to institute a zero-tolerance approach to sexual abuse and violence behind bars, including mandatory requirements for CSC to publicly report and respond to these incidents.
Legislation is required because of the magnitude of the issue and CSC’s “unwillingness” to take it on, he said.
Mr. Zinger said Canada should look to the United States for an example. The Prison Rape Elimination Act, which passed in 2003 with bipartisan support and created a “zero-tolerance standard” for rape in U.S. prisons. It requires the Bureau of Justice Statistics to carry out an annual comprehensive statistical review and analysis of the incidence and effects of prison rape. In 2018, BJS reported that an estimated 1,473 allegations were substantiated – up 63 per cent from the 902 substantiated in 2011.
The Liberal government has not indicated whether it intends to introduce similar legislation in Canada.
Mary-Liz Power, a spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Bill Blair, said in a statement the government is working with CSC on research to inform a strategy on detecting, preventing and responding to sexual coercion and violence in correctional institutions. An interim report will be developed this spring.
She also said Mr. Blair has written to the House of Commons public safety committee to request an independent study and subsequent report on the issue.
At the root of the problem, advocates say, is the power imbalance between guards and the prisoners, and a reluctance by authorities to take allegations of abuse seriously.
Emilie Coyle, the executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, said there is an “automatic disbelief” when prisoners bring forward such allegations. What is “really tragic about the circumstances that happened in Nova and that have happened in other prisons, frankly, is that they were not believed,” she said.
The issue is compounded by the fact that a majority of women in prison have experienced sexual trauma in their lives before being institutionalized, Ms. Coyle said.
Both of the former prisoners from Nova who spoke to The Globe said they are survivors of childhood sexual trauma.
“They’re already vulnerable, and then you couple that vulnerability with this violent environment, this toxic culture within the prisons, and you have a cocktail of pain and harm that is not believed – which creates even more harm and even more pain,” Ms. Coyle said.
She wants people to understand that sexual assaults happened – and are happening – in prisons.
“These people should be believed.”
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