A report on an altercation last year at the Edmonton Institution sheds light on the use of force by correctional officers and the tense relationship between inmates and employees at the maximum-security federal prison.
Breaking: obtained a redacted copy of the report following a federal information access request.
Inmates told a lawyer last year that after a fight between inmates on Jan. 8, 2022, a shot from a prison guard went through a door and hit another inmate.
At the time, Correctional Service Canada said two inmates were taken to hospital for assessment and treatment after a physical altercation. A spokesman said a prisoner, who was not involved in the fight, “reported a superficial abrasion to medical staff and no further medical attention was required.”
One of the men involved suffered life-changing injuries during the fight and is still hospitalized, according to Edmonton police, who were called in to investigate the altercation.
The other was slightly injured and has been charged with aggravated assault and possession of a weapon. Both charges have been stayed.
An internal investigation, known as a CSC Commission of Inquiry, into the incident provides a more detailed picture of what happened, as well as more information about the impact of a correctional officer shortage on inmates and employees at the federal prison.
Since the incident, the prison has taken corrective action with the officers who used force, made changes to the introductory firearms training manual, and conditions have since improved, according to the correctional officers’ union and a defense attorney with clients in prison.
Corrections officers saw two inmates fighting shortly before 8:30 p.m. on January 8, according to the summary of the report.
According to the report, the prisoners were armed with weapons “strapped or tied to their wrists with torn pieces of cloth”. One of them was holding what appeared to be a “prison-made stabbing weapon.”
A correctional officer ordered the prisoners to stop fighting and warned that force would be used, but they disobeyed and the officer fired a bullet from a launcher. The bullet hit one of the prisoners.
The report said a second prosecutor fired warning shots from a rifle, followed by a “deliberately aimed bullet,” which passed through a fire door and hit a wall.
The report said that the bullet or shrapnel from the bullet spread even further, causing a prisoner who had used the phone to “flinch back and spill his coffee from the cup he was holding.”
A few minutes later, officers ordered a prisoner lying on his back to lie face down on the floor with his hands behind his back.
One of the officers used a shield in an attempt to force him to lie face down, striking him approximately eight times with the shield, while a second officer used pepper spray from a canister.
The prisoner did not resist and was handcuffed.
The next day, inmates asked to speak with a security intelligence officer, who was conducting a cell search, about their living conditions. Concerns included “lack of time outside their cells, lack of programming and the ability to make legal calls”. They also said the gunshots fired the day before were traumatic and affected their mental health.
On January 11, six detectives in a prison unit refused to work, saying the gunshot that penetrated the fire door “posed a serious threat to the life or health of an employee.” Correctional managers then staffed that unit.
Later that month, inmates fought again and a manager fired a warning shot with a rifle and used pepper spray.
On February 1, a senior researcher from Employment Social Development Canada issued a verbal finding of danger to the employees who had refused to work and to the director of the Edmonton Institution.
As a result, the report said, rifles were removed from the unit.
Use the power
The report found that the correctional officers using the launcher and rifle used force that was necessary and proportionate to the situations.
According to the report, officers had correctly assessed the level of risk as high because the detainees had “the ability, intent and means to inflict serious injury or death”.
However, the Commission of Inquiry determined that shoving a detainee with a shield and using pepper spray was not a necessary or proportionate use of force. Officers are taught to use the shield as a barrier, not a weapon against prisoners, the report said.
Video of the incident suggested that the prisoner was not given time to comply with the order to turn around as he was held in place with the shield and although he had previously been dangerous, his behavior had changed and the risk was significantly reduced .
According to the report, Edmonton Institution has since taken corrective action with affected officials to address this issue.
The use of violence assessments also revealed other non-compliance issues, including the failure to provide inmates with the opportunity to give their version of events and the failure to deploy a portable video camera in a timely manner.
Following the Edmonton Institution incidents, CSC amended its Introduction to Firearms Training Manual to explain that officers are “responsible for the placement of all cartridges they fire.”
The investigation also found that the relationship between inmates and Edmonton Institution correctional officers had become tense.
During a month, with many people on sick leave related to the pandemic, Edmonton Institution had 29 correctional officer job openings.
The situation meant officers collectively worked more than 6,000 overtime hours a month leading up to January 8.
According to the report, many officers showed signs of fatigue and exhaustion. Because managers couldn’t find people willing to work overtime, they ordered officers already on shift to keep working.
Due to the shortage of officers, certain prison areas were closed and prisoners’ time outside their cells was limited.
This frustrated inmates, the report said, and between October 1, 2021 and April 1, 2022, they filed 107 complaints related to the institutional routine.
The report said Edmonton Institution has made adjustments to expand access to out-of-cell activities and that inmate complaints have decreased significantly since the January 2022 incidents.
In an emailed statement, CSC said that since November 2021, Edmonton Institution has improved communication and awareness of issues with staff and inmates. The statement also said the prison’s assistant director meets regularly with correctional managers to discuss operational issues, needs and better communication with frontline staff.
“A health worker has also been on site to support health services staff, while their staff team has identified an additional 65 new correctional officers, as well as 24 others who will be deployed from upcoming Correctional Training Programs,” the statement said.
Conditions have improved, the union says
Union of Canadian Correctional Officers prairie region president James Bloomfield said the investigation board report confirms that officers were right when they pulled the trigger during a dangerous situation.
He said officers don’t use firearms regularly, only when absolutely necessary, and that there are plans for a redesigned door that would be impenetrable to bullets.
“This incident was just a really, really difficult situation for everyone and I’m glad it worked out without any deaths,” he said.
Bloomfield said prison working conditions have improved since last year. COVID-19 restrictions have been removed, programming has returned, and the workforce has improved, with fewer people experiencing burnout.
However, he said violence in the facility is still high and prison-made weapons are common.
GGZ could prevent incidents: lawyer
Jill Shiskin, a criminal defense attorney with Craig Hooker Shiskin, represented one of the inmates involved in the January 8 fight. She also heads the Alberta Prison Justice Society’s advocacy committee.
Shiskin said Edmonton Institution inmates are now allowed to spend more time outside their cells, but they still struggle to get timely mental health care.
Many of her clients beg for a psychologist or psychiatrist, telling her they can’t control their thoughts, she said.
She said better conditions and resources for prisoners would prevent dangerous incidents between prisoners and staff.
“If detainees don’t get mental health care or if there aren’t enough staff to support the officers, these situations bubble up more and more,” she said.