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Former federal inmate, Sara Tessier, poses in Halifax on Sept 25, 2020.The Globe and Mail

A woman who was incarcerated at a federal correctional institution has launched a proposed class-action lawsuit on behalf of herself and other women, citing a systemic failure to protect them from sexual abuse.

Sara Tessier, who would be the representative plaintiff, said she is launching the lawsuit to bring about change and accountability. Many prisoners have been victimized in federal institutions designated for women, she said.

“The experience for me was extremely detrimental to my mental health and well-being,” Ms. Tessier said in a statement. “It is for this reason that I have stepped up, with and on behalf of those who have been harmed.”

Ms. Tessier said her goal as the representative in the legal action is to hold the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) accountable and to put a stop to trauma that goes on behind the walls of institutions.

CSC said Thursday it had not yet examined the lawsuit and cannot comment further at this time.

Halifax-based lawyer Mike Dull of Valent Legal, who is counsel for the proposed class, said he has spoken with more than 12 current or former inmates who have described a systemic problem and a culture of sexual harassment and sexual assault by male staff.

He said the lawsuit is intended to shine a light on what is happening inside institutions in hopes it creates a culture change that will protect the welfare of women who are incarcerated, and to seek remedy.

In October, 2020, Correctional Investigator Ivan Zinger tabled a report in Parliament detailing how sexual violence and coercion inside federal prisons thrive in a culture of silence or organizational indifference.

Mr. Zinger found a lack of reporting of sexual violence involving inmates, and a fear of being ridiculed, punished or not believed if they came forward with allegations. The report also said incidents are often not investigated, and rarely reach the courts.

Mr. Zinger also said the CSC has avoided gathering evidence on the prevalence of sexual violence and coercion, and that by not taking it on, the agency perpetuates a culture of silence and organizational indifference.

The Globe and Mail reported on Monday that the CSC cannot say how many of its employees have faced criminal charges of sexual misconduct, while at least three guards at women’s institutions have been charged in recent years with sex crimes against inmates.

Advocates said the cases are only the tip of the iceberg, and that the problem is fuelled by a failure to believe those who bring forward allegations, a power imbalance inside institutions, and an unwillingness among authorities to address the issue.

The Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies (CAEFS), an organization that advocates for women, girls and gender-diverse people in the justice system, has called for an independent public inquiry on the issue of staff-to-inmate sexual coercion, violence and abuse in women’s prisons.

CSC said this week the criminal process is outside its purview, but if an individual is still working for the agency when a complaint is raised, and the allegations are substantiated, it runs its own disciplinary investigation to determine whether its values and ethics code has been violated.

A spokesperson also said CSC is working on additional measures to address sexual violence and coercion, and is working to further refine its data on the issue.

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