‘They’re Shooting Live Bullets at Us’: Guards Keep Firing Guns at Edmonton’s Federal Prison

Inmates, corrections guards, and advocates tell VICE World News that they’re extremely worried at the rapidly deteriorating situation.

Tensions are mounting in one of Canada’s most dysfunctional federal prisons after corrections officers fired their service weapons for the second time in a matter of weeks.

Since reporting on a chaotic brawl that sent two inmates to hospital and wounded a third, VICE World News has been contacted by a number of inmates, corrections officers, and advocates to raise the alarm on worsening conditions inside the maximum-security Edmonton Institution. Multiple sources described the situation as a powder keg, with warnings that violence could flare if things don’t improve.

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According to those sources, a fight broke out between two inmates on Jan. 8. After verbal warnings, officers intervened by firing multiple rounds from their carbine rifles—sources estimate that between four and seven rounds were fired. While the Correctional Service, Canadian’s federal prison agency, confirmed that “warning shots” were fired, one corrections officer, speaking under condition of anonymity, claimed one round was aimed at the inmate who instigated the fight, but it missed.

VICE World News is not identifying the corrections employees because they were not authorized to speak to the media and feared consequences from their employer; nor are we identifying the inmates and their families, who feared retaliation from the corrections officers. VICE has also been given Access to Information documents, court records, and audio tapes that corroborate the toxic, violent, and dysfunctional state of the institution.

Inmates have also spoken to the Edmonton Journal, describing how the current climate inside the prison makes them fear for their lives.

The Correctional Service confirmed that one inmate remains in hospital “as a result of serious injuries he sustained in a physical altercation with another inmate.” They specified that his injuries “are not a result of the action taken by the Correctional Service of Canada to end the altercation.” The Union of Canadian Correctional Officers (UCCO) said that neither of the inmates was hit by a bullet.

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The shooting set everyone in the prison on edge. Inmates say firing live rounds in the relatively small enclosed space was reckless. 

On Thursday, another shooting happened after an inmate was taken off suicide watch and returned to his cell, on the same unit where the shooting had taken place less than two weeks earlier. Within 10 minutes of him returning to general population, the inmate attacked someone in the unit, multiple sources say—it’s unclear if they attacked a guard or another inmate.

“When that happened, they started shooting,” said an inmate who was sitting in a nearby cell. “They’re shooting live bullets right at us,” he said. Given that the area is “wall-to-wall metal,” he said, the risk of a ricochet is very real.

He said officers fired two live rounds, then dispatched tear gas. There were no reported injuries as a result of the shooting.

The Correctional Service confirmed to VICE World News that officers fired their weapons again on Jan. 21. They wrote in an email that the officers tried to resolve the conflict “using the most reasonable interventions” and that “munitions are a last resort when someone’s life may be threatened.”

The Service would not confirm how many rounds were fired in either incident.

‘We don’t feel safe’

Things inside Edmonton Institution have been getting steadily worse for months.

The environment goes in a vicious cycle: A lack of programming, services, and family visits have made the inmates bored, frustrated, and angry. Invariably, that frustration explodes into violence. Corrections officers respond to that violence, which provokes further tensions. Overcrowding and understaffing exacerbate those problems.

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“We don't feel safe,” the inmate said.

The corrections officers feel similarly. Inside the prison are large fire doors that are supposed to stop bullets, one corrections officer said—but after officers opened fire, the bullets tore right through the fire door and ricocheted on a neighboring range of cells, causing surface injuries to an inmate as he drank his coffee. Officers believe he was hit with shrapnel.

“Officers currently have a ‘128,’ because the fire doors should stop live rounds,” the officer said. “ A ‘128’ refers to a section of the federal labour code that allows an employee to refuse to work if the conditions could put their safety in jeopardy. “It’s not safe to use a firearm,” the officer said—it puts both inmates and staff at risk.

Because the unionized officers are refusing to work, management has stepped in to staff the unit. The short-staffing means that only one or two inmates are allowed out of their cell at a time, effectively putting the whole unit on lockdown. 

James Bloomfield, UCCO’s regional president for the area, wouldn’t comment on the ongoing labour action but said it is “not affecting the operations of the prison at this point.” (Bloomfield did say that the security flaws are “being addressed.”)

Bloomfeld said the corrections employees have been trying to manage the situation as best they can. “We're short-staffed at that institution for correctional officers, and have been since before the pandemic.” (The Correctional Service rejected the idea that they are short-staffed at the Edmonton Institution, writing in an email that the staffing levels are “adequate.”)

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The temperature continues to rise, however. The corrections officer says that the unit in question is a “Gong Show.” 

The inmate on that unit says inmates are growing increasingly frustrated with the conditions: “​​On a good day, we get one hour out. We’re locked up like 23 hours a day.” He adds: “You can’t even get to see a doctor, or psychiatrist, or anybody to talk to for your mental health.”

Numerous court rulings have found that keeping inmates in their cell for more than 20 hours a day constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, causes significant psychological and mental harm, and is unconstitutional. Federal law is supposed to forbid that practice. But everyone who spoke to VICE News says those limits are not being respected inside Edmonton Institution.

“This is very simple,” one former Edmonton Institution corrections officer told VICE World News. “When you push an inmate, they [can only] get pushed so far. They can't get their mail. They can't get on the phone to their loved ones, they can't get a shower: They start to eat themselves, they start to stab themselves. They start to banter back and forth between their cell doors because they have no coping strategies.”

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It’s a struggle just to get inmates access to the recreation yard, they said. “There's no library. There's no schooling.”

In Canada, security designations are not static; inmates can be classified higher or lower based on their behavior inside the prison. Inmates in maximum security can be moved down to a medium-security facility if they can show a commitment to rehabilitation: Taking classes, working in the prison industry, or participating in programming for addiction can all contribute to an inmate being classified down.

But without programming, those moves become more difficult. 

“You need inmates cascading down to medium. That's how you have more control over the inmates,” the ex-officer said. “You want an inmate to go from a max, to a medium, to a minimum, to a halfway house, and to have control mechanisms in place to protect the public.

“What does the public want? An inmate that was just involved in a group stabbing, and released the next day?” the former officer continued.

A family member of a current inmate at Edmonton Institute agreed. “Inmates are being released from max, which is unacceptable—some who are dangerous,” they told VICE News. 

“There's a reason why a maximum-security inmate is in a maximum-security penitentiary. OK? So if you really want to see what a maximum security inmate can do, you take everything away from them,” the former officer said.

As tensions mount, the job of managing the prison falls onto corrections officers, who are often left with few mechanisms to respond. “The reality about the maximum-security population is that it is so, so difficult to manage,” Bloomfield says. While many in the prison may be trying to do their time peacefully and transition out of maximum security, others are gang-affiliated and looking to cause trouble.

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The inmate currently in the prison says he and his fellow prisoners have tried to protest peacefully—by blocking the windows to their cells, making it hard for officers to do the official count of the unit—but have been pepper-sprayed and tear-gassed as a result. 

“We need help,” he said.

Prior warnings

In late 2021, Ivan Zinger, the correctional investigator tasked with monitoring Canada’s federal prisons, sent a letter to Anne Kelly, the head of the Correctional Service, warning of how badly things had deteriorated at the Edmonton facility.

Zinger had sent two investigators into the prison, unplanned, in November 2021 to survey the state of the prison. “My investigators observed conditions of confinement that are oppressive and intolerable by any standard,” Zinger wrote. “For a maximum-security facility, EI [Edmonton Institution] is over-populated, under-served, and severely short-staffed.”

The prison basically operated as one big solitary confinement unit, he wrote. Inmates in the Structured Intervention Units, which replaced the old solitary confinement unit, often get more time out of their cells than the rest of the inmate population.

Zinger listed a litany of problems: Front-line staff were in constant conflict with management; staffing levels sat at 62 percent of a full complement; programming, work opportunities, and schooling were all limited or nonexistent; inmates were given scant time out of their cells, with some units receiving just 50 minutes of time in the yard or gym per week; the wait time for mental health support sat at a year; and more.

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The Correctional Investigator described a system in crisis, and recommended action. “I believe that Edmonton Institution requires national-level intervention, including your immediate assistance and support,” Zinger told Commissioner Kelly.

A spokesperson for the Correctional Service told VICE News that they took Zinger’s letter “very seriously.”

“Specific focus has been on safely integrating inmate populations to allow for increased time out of their cells, the ability to have more video visitation with family and support networks, reassessing offenders’ security level when appropriate, and timely transfers to lower security, and eliminating double bunking,” they wrote. The Service insisted that they were also training more officers and health staff, while also working with both inmates and the union to address some of the structural problems.

Reached by VICE News, Zinger said, “I was indeed encouraged by the CSC response, but clearly lots remains to be done to ensure EI functions as it should and complies with its safe and humane custody legal obligations.”

Yet the recent violence has shown that many of the problems identified by Zinger are clearly still present in the institution.

Bloomfeld said the dysfunction is a from a confluence of problems: “It’s everything at once.” He said COVID-19, in particular, is hamstringing their ability to run the institution. “You can have this whole idealistic approach when you have everybody within the buildings. But when you look at the reality of what COVID has done to our buildings, it's removed a lot of people in the workplace,” he said. The spread of the Omicron variant has made that particularly acute. 

A letter sent from Ivan Zinger to CSC Commissioner Anne Kelly 1/3

Bloomfield stressed that vaccine hesitancy hasn’t been a problem for his members—a vaccine mandate for federal employees has been in place since October, and he said that the number of corrections staff who lost their job for refusing to be vaccinated is a “very small group.”

“The ones that have been through the pandemic, inside the institution, dealing with it this whole time, have been the correctional officers, the inmates, and half of the management team,” he added. “As much as all the politicians, as much as all the management teams, [want to] think up what the best fix is going to be, the tensions get exploded upon correctional officers every single time.”

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COVID-19 isn’t the only explanation for the dismal conditions inside the prison, however.

“All these lockdowns that were happening prior to the pandemic are the same as what's happening through the pandemic,” a former officer at the prison said. “Edmonton Institution has never changed.” An inmate who has spent several years in the institution agrees.

Indeed, lawsuits filed in 2013 allege many of the same conditions were prevalent in the institution back then: lockups that kept inmates in their cells 23 hours per day, a lack of programming and reading material, limitations on contacting legal counsel.

More of the letter from Zinger to Kelly. 2/3

Part of the problem is the tension between officers and management.

The former officer said it was a common tactic for the staff to give management an ultimatum: “They say, ‘If you guys don't lock down this institution, we're gonna call a labour code.’” They said there can be legitimate reasons for those lockdowns—namely, protecting both staff and inmates from violence.

But, they added, these lockdowns can also be a perverse incentive for corrections officers: Lockdowns are necessary to perform cell-by-cell searches for weapons and contraband. “All of those search staff are all overtime,” they said. “It’s a cash cow. It’s a complete cash cow.” A 2017 workplace review of the prison found lockdowns were used by corrections officers to “rile up inmates, to shirk their responsibilities, or to get back at management."

A history of dysfunction

Edmonton Institution has been singled out for its toxic and abusive environment in the past — conflict exists not just between guards and inmates but also among Correctional Service staff. In 2016, the Correctional Investigator called attention to the fact that, in the facility, a "toxic workplace culture leads to policy violations, unfair treatment of offenders, and potential human rights abuses." 

A series of audio recordings of corrections officers in the prison that year, provided to VICE, reveal just how hostile and toxic that workplace was: Officers can be heard making racist, antisemitic, sexist, homophobic, and abelist comments about their co-workers and the inmates.

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In one call, an officer remarks how officers “gas those fuckers down there, eh?” On another, one officer laughs as the other remarks, about the inmates: “These fucking inbred cocksuckers. Why do we tolerate them?” In another, a corrections officer says that inmates were “lipping off” to the staff, “so we cut their power.” The repeated use of racial slurs (particularly toward Black and Indigenous prisoners), wanton use of force, and violent language has been cited in numerous reports and lawsuits.

The growing attention about the dysfunction led the Correctional Service to order a workplace study of the prison, and to host a series of town halls. The prison even opened a confidential tip line for officers to report wrongdoing by their colleagues.

A number of officers lost their jobs as a result. 

Graham Spilsbury was fired from the prison in early 2018, and a year later he was arrested and charged with sexually assaulting one of his colleagues. The criminal charges against Spilsbury were later dropped, but he was later named in a multimillion-dollar lawsuit filed by a number of female corrections officers from the institution. The women allege that his history of harassment goes back to 2007 and include, among other things, waterboarding. Those claims have not been proven in court. Spilsbury and a number of former guards were also sued by inmates from the prison; the case was settled for an undisclosed sum.

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But the dysfunction didn’t cease. The tipline appeared to be used to settle scores. One officer was accused of assaulting an inmate and then fired. A workplace tribunal would later vindicate that officer, concluding that the assault did not happen, that, in fact, the officer had de-escalated a potentially violent situation with an inmate. The tribunal further found that union executives had conspired to fabricate evidence against the officer. Two union executives told another officer that “they did not care if he had to make things up but that he had to provide evidence against the other officers… or his job would be in jeopardy,” the tribunal found.

A 2019 follow-up report from the Correctional Investigator found that things had not significantly improved. “Transforming a culture of impunity is more than just rooting out the rot of a few bad apples,” the investigator wrote.

After that report, the Correctional Service ordered yet another internal workplace review. The study found a litany of issues: Staff at the prison, for example, were asked, “Do you always deal with conflict by using a ‘lowest-level response’?” To that, 88 percent said yes. They were then asked, “Do your co-workers always deal with conflict by first using a ‘lowest-level response’?” Just a third said yes. More than 85 percent of staff at the prison felt like at least some of their colleagues are unqualified for their jobs.

The final part of the letter. 3/3

The survey was damning in many regards: Three-quarters said Edmonton Institution is a hostile or offensive work environment, half said their workplace was unsafe, 70 percent said they witnessed harassment in the workplace. Seventeen employees told the review that they had been sexually assaulted by their co-workers—two said they were assaulted by their manager or superviser.

The review found that wrongdoing was reported in only a minority of cases. More than half of the institution’s employees identified a “culture of fear” inside the prison.

What now?

The Trudeau government has vowed repeatedly that it would improve conditions inside Canada’s prisons, signaling a break from the tough-on-crime record of its Conservative predecessor.

In many respects, however, things have not materially improved in recent years. A constant deluge of lawsuits and legal actions against the government, alleging everything from workplace harassment to unconstitutional conditions of confinement to assault, has continued over the seven years Justin Trudeau has been prime minister. Corrections officers, lawyers, and inmates who are familiar with other institutions told VICE News that Edmonton isn’t entirely unique in its problems, that its tumult is merely indicative of a broader broken system.

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There’s a growing consensus that Canada’s prisons need real, independent oversight. 

The Office of the Correctional Investigator has the power to order inspections of prisons and make recommendations, but it has no power to enforce them. Zinger’s office has a staff of just 35 investigators to cover 53 federal prisons.

When the Correctional Service does conduct investigations, they tend to be composed of Correctional Service staff. When the service seeks outside help for its investigations and reviews, its contracts specifically state that any report has to be submitted as a draft to the Correctional Service for review.

Some of the contracts for those investigations are sole-sourced to specific consultants, meaning they were awarded with no competition.

“These investigation boards have to deliver to the warden, and the warden has to accept it, and then it gets approved. Or they tell them ‘no, I want this change, I want this change,’” the former corrections staffer said. “That's actually how it works.” They said that those lucrative contracts, which can often go into six figures, incentivize giving the corrections service “exactly what they want, because they're the ones that are out single-source contracts, right?”

When the Trudeau government appointed an entirely external task force to study the phasing out of solitary confinement in federal prisons, they reported being stonewalled by the correctional service. Most resigned, unable to do their work.

Senator Kim Pate, who served as executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies before her appointment to the upper chamber, has been arguing for years that the courts have to be given authority to oversee how prisons operate. 

“Our judiciary, as the guardian of our Charter, must have the ability to play its crucial constitutional role of upholding the rights of all individuals, particularly those who are most vulnerable and marginalized in prisons, such as women, Indigenous people, and those with disabling mental health issues,” she wrote in 2019.

“You have to take that completely away from CSC,” he said. “They literally need a public inquest.”

Follow Justin Ling on Twitter.

Tagged:

prison, JUSTICE, Canadian News, worldnews, Ivan Zinger

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