Canada’s prison agency is refusing to say whether a guard accidentally shot an inmate in a chaotic confrontation last week.
Despite reports from inside the prison that a prison guard fired their weapon indoors, in proximity of a number of inmates—allegedly injuring one who was sipping coffee in his cell—Correctional Service Canada (CSC) says they are “still confirming the details” of what happened.
It began when a fight broke out inside the maximum-security Edmonton Institution, in Alberta, on Jan. 8. A source whose partner is in the jail said two inmates, armed with knives, were scuffling as other inmates looked on.
An officer, two sources said, pulled their weapon and fired it—ostensibly as a warning shot, to break up the fight. At least one inmate, who was not involved in the fight, was injured by the shot, they alleged. (CSC did not disclose any information on the identity of the guard.)
The incident is emblematic of an increasingly dangerous environment in Canadian prisons—driven by miserable conditions, harsh lockdown measures brought on by the pandemic, systemic racism, and the free flow of drugs. But the shooting incident is also a sign of Correctional Service’s disdain of basic transparency.
A day after the fight took place, the Edmonton Journal reported that the altercation sent two inmates to hospital, but the story made no mention of the shooting. In the days that followed, the partner of one inmate reached out to VICE News to allege the prison was trying to “cover up” the incident.
VICE World News reached out on Jan. 13 to ask about the incident, and the use of a firearm. In response, the Correctional Service posted a statement to its website, reiterating what it had told the Journal: They confirmed that two inmates were injured and sent to hospital—one was discharged that night, while the other remained hospitalized. The statement did not make mention of other injuries or shots fired, except to say: “During these situations, if verbal interventions and dynamic security efforts are unsuccessful in preventing injuries, officers may use other interventions, as necessary, to resolve the incident.”
In addition to an internal investigation, the statement read, the Edmonton Police had been called in to investigate, and that ”more information will be available as that concludes.”
A spokesperson for the Edmonton Police Service confirmed the details of the incident, and said the inmate in hospital is currently in “life-threatening condition.” The city police force “is investigating the altercation between the two inmates, while Correctional Service Canada is investigating the entire incident,” a spokesperson told VICE News.
A second request to the Correctional Service, asking if prison staff fired their weapons and if anyone was hurt as a result, brought another vague statement. In a follow-up email, a Correctional Service spokesperson wrote that “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.” Tactics to de-escalate the situation, a spokesperson wrote, “may range from interventions such as verbal warnings, the use of impact munitions, warning shots, etc.”
They added, however, that “one additional inmate who was not involved in the altercation reported a surface abrasion to medical staff and no further medical attention was required.”
Asked a third time whether Correctional Service staff discharged their weapons, and whether any inmates were injured as a result, a spokesperson admitted that “Correctional Officers attempted to de-escalate the situation with the use of impact munitions and warning shots” but insisted that, when it came to the uninvolved inmate, “we are still confirming the details around the cause.”
VICE World News is not naming the sources of the reports. They reported that inmates feared speaking out or being identified as leakers, out of fear of retaliation from the prison staff.
“This further proves that Edmonton is one of the worst prisons in Canada,” one of the sources said.
The incident at the Edmonton Institution exemplifies growing problems inside Canada’s federal prisons. Use-of-force incidents in federal prisons rose to the highest levels ever in recent years. Advocates, lawyers, and inmates who spoke to VICE during the pandemic said the violence has only worsened due to harsh lockdown measures brought on by COVID-19.
There is, increasingly, a racial element to the use-of-force issue: Indigenous inmates, who now compromise about a third of all federal inmates, are more likely to have forced used on them and are more likely to be classified up to a maximum security facility, according to the Office of the Correctional Investigator. The inmate population at the Edmonton Institution is more than half Indigenous—the staff, overwhelmingly, is not.
The Correctional Investigator released a special report on the Edmonton prison in 2019, finding that an array of issues was contributing to a consistent infringement of inmates’ constitutional rights. The watchdog found that Edmonton had the fourth-highest number of use-of-force incidents of Canada’s 43 federal prisons. The facility “has been plagued by a toxic and troubled workplace culture where dysfunction, abuse of power, and harassment have festered for years,” the investigator, Dr. Ivan Zinger, found.
The Investigator found “recurring policy compliance issues, deficient accountability and a seeming inability to learn from and improve use of force incident management” in other maximum-security prisons as well.
While the Investigator has no power to set policy for the prison system, it can launch reviews and make recommendations. The Correctional Service has vowed to investigate and address the source of the dysfunction inside the Edmonton Institution. But the service doesn’t always abide by those recommendations. In 2020, the Correctional Investigator recommended launching a working group—including outside experts—to review use-of-force incidents and come up with better policies and procedures to curb excessive force.
The service rejected that recommendation, instead opting for its own internal reviews and investigations. A review into its recently implemented use-of-force model, published last summer, found that less than a third of Correctional Service staff agreed with the statement that “CSC’s culture in general is conducive to the successful implementation” of the model, which is supposed to reduce injury to inmates. Nevertheless, the report concluded that the new model, despite not leading to any significant decrease in serious use-of-force incidents, is “performing well on many fronts” and made just five recommendations, largely around clarifying existing protocols and training material.
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Correction: A previous version of this story said the prison guard drew their service pistol. Sources say the weapon was likely a carbine rifle.