A report into an altercation at Edmonton Institution last year sheds light on correctional officers’ use of force and the strained relationship between inmates and employees at the maximum security federal prison.
CBC News has obtained a redacted copy of the report following a federal access to information request.
Inmates told a lawyer last year that after a fight between inmates on Jan. 8, 2022, a shot fired by a corrections officer went through a door and struck another inmate.
At the time, Correctional Service Canada said two inmates were taken to hospital for assessment and treatment following a physical altercation. A spokesperson said an inmate, who was not involved in the fight, “reported a surface abrasion to medical staff and no further medical attention was required.”
One of the men involved sustained life-altering injuries in the fight and is still in hospital, according to the Edmonton Police Service, which was called in to investigate the altercation.
The other had minor injuries and has been charged with aggravated assault and possession of a weapon. Both charges have been stayed.
An internal investigation, known as a board of investigation, from CSC into the incident offers a more detailed view of what happened, as well as more information on how a correctional officer shortage was affecting inmates and employees at the federal prison.
Since the incident, the prison has taken corrective measures with the officers who used force, made changes to its introductory firearms training manual, and according to the correctional officers’ union and a defence lawyer with clients at the prison, conditions have improved since then.
According to the report’s executive summary, correctional officers saw two inmates fighting shortly before 8:30 p.m. on Jan. 8.
The report says the inmates were armed with weapons that were “fastened or tethered to their wrists with torn pieces of fabric.” One had been holding something that appeared to be a “prison-made stabbing weapon.”
A correctional officer ordered the inmates to stop fighting and warned force would be used, but they did not comply and the officer fired a round from a launcher. The round hit one of the inmates.
The report said a second corrections officer fired warning shots with a rifle, followed by a “deliberately aimed round,” which went through a fire door and struck a wall.
The report said the round or shrapnel from the round dispersed even further, causing an inmate who had been using the telephone “to flinch and his coffee to spill from the cup he was holding.”
A couple of minutes later, officers ordered an inmate, who was 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 deployed pepper spray from a canister.
The inmate 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 a “lack of time out of their cells, lack of programming, and opportunity to make legal calls.” They also said the gunshots fired the day before were traumatic and had affected their mental health.
On Jan. 11, six corrections officers in a unit at the prison refused to work, saying the shot that had penetrated the fire door “represented 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 from a rifle and used pepper spray.
On Feb. 1, a senior investigator with Employment Social Development Canada provided a verbal finding of danger to the employees who had refused to work and to Edmonton Institution’s warden.
As a result, the report said, rifles were removed from the unit.
Use of force
The report found that the correctional officers who used the launcher and rifle used force that was necessary and proportionate to the situations.
The report said officers had properly assessed the risk level as being high because the inmates “had the ability, intent and means to inflict serious harm or death.”
The board of investigation determined, however, that pushing an inmate 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 inmates, the report said.
Video of the incident suggested the inmate was not given time to comply with the order to turn over because he was being held in place with the shield and though he had been dangerous earlier, his behaviour had changed and the risk had been significantly reduced.
The report said Edmonton Institution has since taken corrective measures with the officers involved to address this issue.
Use of force reviews also identified other non-compliance issues, including not offering inmates the opportunity to provide their version of events and not deploying a handheld video camera in a timely manner.
After the incidents at Edmonton Institution, CSC adjusted its Introduction to Firearms Training Manual to explain that officers “are responsible for the disposition of where all the rounds they fire end up.”
The investigation also found that the relationship between inmates and correctional officers at Edmonton Institution had become strained.
During one month, with many people on sick leave related to the pandemic, Edmonton Institution had 29 vacant correctional officer positions.
The situation meant officers were collectively working more than 6,000 hours of overtime per month leading up to Jan. 8.
The report said many officers were showing signs of fatigue and exhaustion. Because managers were unable to find people willing to work overtime, they ordered officers already on shift to keep working.
Because of the officer shortage, certain prison areas were closed and inmates’ time outside their cells was limited.
This frustrated inmates, the report said, and between Oct. 1, 2021 and April 1, 2022, they filed 107 grievances related to the institutional routine.
The report said Edmonton Institution made adjustments to expand access to out-of-cell activities and inmate grievances have decreased significantly since the January 2022 incidents.
In an emailed statement, CSC said Edmonton Institution has increased communication and awareness of issues to staff and inmates since November 2021. The statement also said the prison’s assistant warden meets regularly with correctional managers to discuss operational issues, needs and increased communications with frontline staff.
“A health services professional has also been on site to support health services staff, while their human resources team has identified an additional 65 new correctional officers as well as 24 others to be deployed from upcoming Correctional Training Programs,” the statement said.
Conditions have improved, union says
James Bloomfield, prairies region president for the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, said the board of investigation report confirms officers were right to pull the trigger during a dangerous situation.
He said officers don’t use firearms regularly, only if absolutely necessary, and there are plans for a newly designed door that would be impenetrable to bullets.
“This incident was just a really, really difficult situation for everybody and I’m glad that it worked out where there wasn’t a loss of life,” he said.
Bloomfield said working conditions at the prison have improved since last year. COVID-19 restrictions have been removed, programming has returned and staffing levels have improved, with fewer people experiencing burnout.
He said violence at the institution is still high, however, and prison-made weapons are common.
Mental health care could prevent incidents: lawyer
Jill Shiskin, a criminal defence lawyer with Craig Hooker Shiskin, represented one of the inmates involved in the Jan. 8 fight. She also leads the Alberta Prison Justice Society’s advocacy committee.
Shiskin said inmates at Edmonton Institution are now allowed to spend more time out of their cells but they still struggle to receive timely mental health support.
Many of her clients are begging to see a psychologist or psychiatrist and tell her they can’t control their thoughts, she said.
She said better conditions and resources for inmates would prevent dangerous incidents between inmates and staff.
“If inmates aren’t getting mental health support or there’s not enough staff to support the officers, then these situations bubble up more and more,” she said.