A former correctional officer at the Nova Institution for Women, a federal facility in Truro, N.S., has pleaded guilty to three counts of sexual assault and three counts of breach of trust.
Advocates have pointed to the case, involving former guard Brian Wilson, as an example of the broader challenges within federal correctional institutions. These include failure to believe prisoners who bring forward sexual abuse allegations, a power imbalance and toxicity of the culture inside institutions, unwillingness to address the prevalence of sexual misconduct, and the need for greater accountability.
The Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies said on Monday that several women who were incarcerated at the institution told CSC that they had been sexually assaulted.
Executive director Emilie Coyle said that all the factors that prevent people from reporting experiences of sexual violence in community “are compounded for women and gender diverse people who are, or have been, in prison.”
Correctional officers and other staff at Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) wield “incredible power” over the liberty of individuals who are incarcerated, Ms. Coyle added.
“Coming forward with a claim against a CSC staff [member] could result in retaliation that could jeopardize one’s chance of being granted parole when eligible,” she said. “Despite this, these women still chose to share their stories. And they are not alone.”
Ms. Coyle noted sexual assault charges have been brought against staff members in three of the six federal prisons designated for women in recent years.
The CSC did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Mr. Wilson’s plea on Monday.
Mr. Wilson’s lawyer, Derek Sonnichsen, confirmed that his client pleaded guilty to the three charges of sexual assault and the three of breach of trust. He added that Mr. Wilson did not want comment.
After a year-long investigation, the Truro Police charged Mr. Wilson in May, 2020.
Police said they received a complaint in March, 2019, alleging inappropriate relationships between a corrections officer and female inmates at Nova.
Senator Kim Pate, an advocate for marginalized and institutionalized women, told The Globe and Mail last year that Truro police confirmed to her that she was the first to report the female prisoners’ allegations of sexual misconduct at the prison to the force.
She also said she called the police because women contacted her personally and told her they had brought the allegations to CSC but were concerned a lack of response.
In May, 2019, three women who said they were sexually assaulted at the Nova institution launched a lawsuit against the federal correctional service.
At the time, CSC said it called police right away when it heard the allegations. Later, the agency admitted officials waited three months while they conducted their own internal investigation before contacting Truro police.
Ivan Zinger, the Correctional Investigator of Canada, has called on the federal government to legislate a zero-tolerance approach to sexual abuse and violence behind bars, including mandatory requirements for CSC to publicly report and respond to incidents.
His office tabled a report in Parliament in 2020 on sexual violence and coercion in federal prisons. It noted that sexual violence is a systemic problem.