Tensions flaring in Alta. prison short on guards, inmates report being locked up 23 hours a day
Two events in as many weeks in which Alberta corrections officers fired their weapons is evidence staffing shortages are endangering inmates and staff alike, say sources connected to the prison.
Lawyers with clients inside Edmonton Institution claim some inmates have been kept in their cell for more than 23 hours a day, and believe the deviation from normal protocol is Correctional Service Canada's way of handling COVID-19 absences.
They also say the conditions are not only a human rights issue, but creating a "pressure cooker" of stress and aggression.
"I don't want there to be a situation where it escalates because there's so much tension on both sides, but I don't see it resolving any other way if it keeps continuing like this," criminal lawyer Gilliana Shiskin told CTV News Edmonton.
CSC disputes the maximum-security facility in northeast Edmonton has inadequate staff – a directly opposite position of the union representing the correctional officers that work there.
The leader of the Alberta Prison Justice Society says the recent conditions and violence are the worst she's known them to be at the prison.
STAFFING 'VERY LOW': UNION REP
Shiskin's clients have told her the prison has been operating in a kind of lockdown for weeks. One client, who she wouldn't name for confidentiality reasons, says there has been only a handful of days he has been allowed out of his cell for more than 15 minutes.
"I think it's hard for people on the outside to appreciate being locked in your bathroom/bedroom with potentially two or three other people," she said.
"When you get your 15 minutes out, that's to shower, to use the phone. And when all these guys are out for the same time, they're lined up for the phone, you're having to make tough decisions. Do you call your lawyer? Do you call your mom? Do you call your wife? Do you call your kids?"
Her understanding is that the conditions deteriorated as more staff became sick, then further after a couple of violent incidents.
The prairies president of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers called staffing levels "very low."
According to James Bloomfield, the prison employs between 250 and 275 correctional officers and there are regularly several dozen off on workers compensation. As of Monday, 27 Edmonton Institution staff were isolating at home after testing positive for COVID-19, CSC said.
"The level of correctional officers is really going to be determining the opening of that institution and how much we can move," Bloomfield said, referring to out-of-cell activity.
He does not work at Edmonton Institution, but said he could confirm "23 hours in their cell at times has happened."
In the most restrictive part of the prison, inmates are supposed to get four hours out of their cell per day, although CSC can enforce tougher restrictions during an official lockdown, lawyers said.
Depriving inmates of out-of-cell time has been considered a human rights abuse, criminal lawyer and president of the Alberta Prison Justice Society Amanda Hart-Dowhun told CTV News Edmonton.
"They can't contact their family. They can't access the programs that were put in place to try and help them improve on their issues… They're not getting proper access to the outside or the gym so that they can engage in some kind of stress release," Hart-Dowhun commented.
"That's a lot of pressure and a lot of stress for anybody to be under. And they're being held in close proximity. So I would expect you're likely to see more incidents between inmates, between each other, incidents in relation to the guards, possibly riots.
"It's a pressure cooker. It's very dangerous."
TWO ALTERCATIONS IN TWO WEEKS
Two fights between inmates in January ended with corrections officers firing weapons, the pair of lawyers say.
According to CSC, a "physical altercation" between a pair of inmates on Jan. 8 ended with both being treated in hospital and resulted in a part of the prison being locked down. It is unclear how a third inmate was injured in the event, however, inmates told the Alberta Prison Justice Society he was hit by a "warning shot" that penetrated a door he was on the other side of.
On Jan. 21, three inmates were involved in another altercation. One was briefly hospitalized.
CTV News Edmonton asked CSC multiple times to confirm if officers used their weapons in the events.
CSC spokesperson Jeff Campbell only said the inmate involved in the Jan. 8 altercation, who remains in hospital, wasn't hurt by the action taken by corrections officers.
Of Jan. 21, Campbell said, "verbal warnings were issued and staff deployed chemical agents and used a warning shot to resolve the incident." He added the shot wasn't directed at any inmates and that a "progression of measures to de-escalate and resolve the situation" are available to officers.
"The goal is always to prevent further injury and any use of force is limited to what is necessary and proportionate to manage the situation at hand."
EPS confirmed CSC staff fired a "warning shot" during the Jan. 21 altercation, "though no one was struck."
"Previous to this, I don't even think I've heard about a shooting at the Edmonton Institution. Which doesn't mean they haven't happened – I'm sure they have – but I don't think that it's very common," Hart-Dowhun said.
"So the fact that there have been two in less than two weeks is deeply troubling to me."
CSC differentiates a lockdown -- when movement is restricted within a unit or the entire prison -- from the "modified" routine that is currently being implemented at Edmonton Institution. Such routines are developed at the institution depending on the situation and security level, Campbell said.
"Should the safety of the inmate population, staff and/or visitors be in jeopardy movement of inmates in parts of, or throughout the whole institution could be further limited or restrcited while those health and/or safety risks are assessed. Health and safety issues can arise for a number of reasons, such as an issue with one or more inmates or to prevent the spread of a virus," he said.
When asked if Bloomfield considered Edmonton Institution safe, he replied, "It's as safe as it can be considering the environment."
"As correctional officers, we're the ones who open up those doors, so if there's frustrations from staying behind them a lot, we're the ones who are going to face the brunt of that… But we have to work within the safety of restrictions that are ongoing."
'PUBLIC SAFETY IS ON THE LINE, TOO': LAWYER
Both Edmonton Police Service and CSC are investigating the January assaults. CSC said more information would be available after the work was complete.
However, concerned about both the credibility and transparency of that process, Hart-Dowhun and Shiskin want an independent review done.
"It looks like they're trying to cover it up. And that's a very disturbing thing to see. It means that whoever's responsible for it will feel at liberty to do it again," Hart-Dowhun told CTV News Edmonton.
Shiskin also said the CSC needs hire more supervisory staff so officers aren't overworked, inmates can be let out of their cell more, and programming can be resumed.
"It's a rough facility so if there's a fight, they'll have a lockdown or if there's rumours of something they might do a lockdown and a search. But usually that would be a 24-hour window, maybe 48 hours… I've never seen it go for this long with no hope that it's going to change," she said.
"When both parties only see it getting worse, and you're dealing with this day after day, it's going to most likely end up in further violence."
Hart-Dowhun added, "They are people. They are people who've committed crimes. Every person is more than who they were at their worst moment."
She pointed out that the inmates at Edmonton Institution will likely be released one day and their risk of re-offending decreases with rehabilitation.
"Even if you don't care at all about the people at Edmonton Institution as humans – which you should – you should care about public safety. And public safety is on the line, too."
A CSC spokesperson told CTV News Edmonton on Monday that staffing levels were "currently adequate to ensure the safe operations of the facility."
Edmonton Institution has never seen a COVID-19 outbreak declared, which CSC defines as positive inmate cases and known transmission inside the prison. As of Jan. 24, there were no active inmate cases at Edmonton Institution.
With files from CTV News Edmonton's Katie Chamberlain, Kyra Markov, David Ewasuk
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