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Edmonton -- A Violation of Trust

Later in the year, in December 1996, the Task Force visited the Edmonton Institution for Women. This had been the first of the new womenís institutions to open and it had experienced the most serious difficulties. Shortly after the first prisoners were admitted there was a murder of a prisoner followed shortly by the escape of five other prisoners. Although the escapees were all quickly recaptured, the escape caused a furore which was played out in the local media and resulted in a major overhaul of the security arrangements at both Edmonton and the other regional institutions. This involved not only a more secure perimeter fence, increased surveillance cameras and a tightening up of the security regime inside the prison, but also a major policy decision that women who were classified as maximum-security would not be housed in the regional facilities. The relatively few women who were so classified at Edmonton Institution were transferred to the Regional Psychiatric Centre in Saskatoon, while part of the Saskatchewan Penitentiary for men was refurbished to receive the women.

In December 1996, Task Force members visited the Edmonton Institution for women. Paul Urmson, a Task Force member from the Prairies Regional Headquarters, reviewed the history of the Task Force to an audience, that included almost all of the staff at the institution. After referring to Madam Justice Arbourís statement that the Correctional Services of Canada had a corporate culture that did not show much respect for the law, Mr. Urmson admitted that in his own work as an administrator he had never given much attention to the requirements of the law. As he put it, "I did my job to the best of my ability, but I never looked at the law." Even with the changes to the law introduced by the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, he, like many of his colleagues, carried on with "business as usual." He made his point by asking the staff who were present, many of whom were new to the Service and therefore had undergone training in the last year, "How many of you have read the CCRA ?" Few hands went up.

After the formal presentations, Professor Monture, Kim Pate, the Executive Director of the Canadian Elizabeth Fry Associations, Todd Sloan, Counsel to the Correctional Investigator, and myself met with four prisoners who were the house representatives. In the course of the next three hours, the four women described to us their reality as prisoners at Edmonton Institution. Three of the four women had served time at the Prison for Women in Kingston and they had therefore a comparative frame of reference for their lives at Edmonton. In physical terms, the transition was from Canadaís only womenís Bastille to the modern cottage-based institution envisioned by Creating Choices. In its original form, Edmonton Institution had taken its place on the landscape of the outskirts of Edmonton with no distinguishing features marking it as a federal prison, beyond the sign at the road leading into the complex. Like most other buildings it sat low to the ground, barely disturbing the horizon. The cottage-style residences, where the women lived, radiating from the central administrative building, fitted naturally into the modular architecture of many of the new buildings in this part of the world. However, as a result of the escape of the women in the spring of 1996, the security at the institution has been heavily reinforced with the installation of a 10 foot fence topped with razor wire. In addition, there are now sensors on the perimeter fence and a whole battery of cameras, including an "eye in the sky," which enabled the staff from central control to monitor every part of the institution. These physical security measures have been accompanied by operational rules and practises that the women believed had undermined the original vision promised by the Edmonton institution. As one of the prisoners told us, "the philosophy behind this institution went over the fence along with the first prisoners who escaped."

That philosophy, which had under-pinned the Creating Choices report, had been that correctional programming and institutional policies should address the distinctive needs of women, rather than be re-worked from those employed at male institutions, and that they should seek to empower the women in their journey towards healing and re-integration into the community. All of the women told us that the regime at Edmonton had failed them on both counts. After the escapes and as part of the security upgrading of the facility, a number of senior correctional staff were brought over from Edmontonís Institution and from Drumheller, the maximum and medium-security male institutions. One of the prisonerís said that she was sick and tired of being told by staff, when she questioned the need for a particular practice, that this was the way it was done at Edmonton or Drumheller. As she put it, "this is not Edmonton Maximum, it is not Drumheller Medium, it is not a male institution." The women felt that even more so than at the prison for women in Kingston, they were living in the shadows of male institutions.

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