‘Violent and Coercive’: Sexual assault behind bars is a taboo topic, but statistics tell only part of the story

Just before noon on Dec. 3, 2017, RCMP in Red Deer received a call from the local remand centre, a jumbled, brick building that houses inmates just blocks from its city hall.

Inside, investigators were told, a prisoner had been sexually assaulted.

A 44-year-old man was eventually charged with sexually assaulting another inmate housed at the central Alberta facility, said RCMP. A publication ban covers any information that can identify the victim — himself serving a sentence for a sexual offence. The case continues to wind through the courts.

Though Alberta government statistics reveal dozens of allegations on record, the case at the Red Deer Remand Centre is the only sexual assault in the provincial correctional system in the past five years that led to criminal charges.

Sexual assault allegations by inmates in Alberta correctional facilities have historically been “very rare,” a spokeswoman with Alberta Justice and Solicitor General said in an email. Official statistics for the federal correctional system also suggest sexual assaults are relatively uncommon within prison walls.

But people who have spent time in and around Canadian correctional facilities tell another story.

“They would have to have their heads stuck in the ground to not know it’s an issue,” said Kim Pate, a senator and former head of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies.

‘Established … mythology’ of prisoner rape

Senator Kim Pate visits the segregation unit at the Millhaven Institute, a federal penitentiary.

In 2001, Human Rights Watch released an influential report on sexual assault in United States prisons called No Escape. In it, author Joanne Mariner wrote about “rape’s established place in the mythology of prison life.” Sexual assaults are assumed to be so prevalent, she wrote, “that when the topic of prison arises, a joking reference to rape seems almost obligatory.”

In the U.S., there is data to back up this perception. In 2003, Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act. Estimates within the text of the act suggested at least 13 per cent of American prisoners had experienced a sexual assault behind bars — equal to more than a million people over a span of 20 years.

The act was passed with bipartisan support and requires, among other things, annual collection of statistics on sexual assault in prisons and jails. In 2015, the most recent year for which data is available, there were 24,661 recorded allegations of sexual victimization from prisoners.

The picture is murkier in Canada. In a 2009 article for the Columbia Journal of Law and Social Problems, Philip Ellenbogen wrote that prison rape is assumed to be less of an issue north of the border.

While acknowledging this may be true, Ellenbogen found Canadian statistics and records on sexual assault were in short supply. At the time, Correctional Service Canada did not track inmate sexual abuse allegations. It was “a problem that Canadian scholars and officials cannot explain,” he wrote.

Postmedia encountered similar issues when requesting sexual assault statistics from 14 Canadian correctional systems.

Of those, just eight were able to provide statistics — five provinces, two territories and the federal Correctional Service Canada. Those statistics vary from system to system; some count only cases where charges were laid, while others also keep track of allegations.

Five correctional systems — B.C., Manitoba, Nunavut, Ontario and Saskatchewan — either do not track sexual assaults or could not produce data. Quebec did not respond by press time.

Correctional Service Canada, which oversees about 14,000 inmates, said it investigated 17 sexual assaults last year — a five-year high.

For Alberta numbers, Postmedia filed a freedom of information request for five years of detailed sexual assault statistics broken down by correctional institution. The Red Deer case was the only one to show up in those records because it resulted in a charge.

Postmedia then requested data on alleged sexual assaults in Alberta correctional facilities; those numbers are far more common. Alberta prisoners made 67 allegations of sexual assault in the last five fiscal years — averaging just over 13 complaints a year. For one reason or another, charges were not pursued in 66 of those cases.

‘A lot of sexual contact’

Even when they do exist, statistics tell only part of the story.

Sexual assault is the most underreported violent crime in the country, according to Statistics Canada. Some estimates show that only five per cent of assaults are ever reported to police. The constraints on reporting sexual assault are even more significant in prison or jail, where anyone labelled a snitch can face violent reprisals.

Official statistics have another limitation: they leave out other forms of sexual violence endemic to time behind bars.

Howard Sapers — a former Edmonton MLA who was Canada’s correctional investigator from 2004 to 2016 and is now Ontario’s Independent Advisor on Corrections Reform — said sexual assaults are “probably the rarest form of sexual contact in a correctional institution.”

“There is a lot of sexual contact that happens inside prisons and jails,” he said. “Some of it is violent. Some of it is coercive.”

Consensual sex does happen inside, he said, despite being prohibited. However, some prisoners might accept what under normal circumstances would be unwanted sexual contact, as a distraction or as the “lesser of two evils.”

“Jails are very particular kinds of environments,” he said. “I’ve talked to men and women who have engaged in often risky sexual behaviour while they were in custody (who) shudder to think (about) their own behaviour once they’re on the outside.”

The strip search is another form of sexual violence, argues Martha Paynter, a nurse who works with the prisoner advocacy group Women’s Wellness Within.

“If that was outside of prison walls — forcing someone to remove their clothes, penetrating their body cavities to search them — this would obviously be sexual assault,” she said.

Exterior pictures of the Edmonton Institution, which is a maximum security federal institution located in the northeastern part of Edmonton.

‘Sexually abusive’

The American Civil Liberties Union recently called the practice “sexually abusive.”

Two Alberta inmates recently claimed they were sexually abused by staff during what were ostensibly searches. The lawsuits contain allegations not proven in court.

A civil suit filed in early 2017 by a former Edmonton Remand Centre inmate Gordon Robinson alleges he was subject to a degrading ordeal at the hands of four unnamed correctional officers. The case was resolved out of court.

Robinson alleges he was taken from his cell on the evening of Aug. 13, 2016, and ordered to strip naked in front of a group of guards in the shower room. One of the guards allegedly told him to “bend the f— over and show me your a——,” which led him to fear he was about to be sexually assaulted.

The claim states Robinson was then led naked down a hallway in front of male and female inmates while guards made repeated jokes about his genitals. He goes on to claim one of the guards broke his elbow, and that he did not receive proper medical treatment.

In another lawsuit, ex-inmate Gavin Annett claims guards sprayed pepper spray into his rectum. He claims he was then forced to bend over and expose his anus, followed by a “mouth sweep” using his same fingers. The lawsuit claims Annett suffered post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression following the Dec. 17, 2017, ordeal. The claim is ongoing and no statement of defence has been filed.

Inmate complaints about strip searches have a long history. One particularly invasive strip search at Kingston’s Prison for Women was the subject of a major inquiry into prison conditions.

On April 22, 1994, six inmates at the prison were involved in what was termed a “brief but violent physical confrontation” with staff at the facility. The women were placed in segregation along with several other inmates. While in segregation, the women continued to be violent. Staff demonstrated outside the prison demanding the women be transferred.

On the evening of April 26, the warden called in an all-male Institutional Emergency Response Team from the men’s prison to remove eight women from cells and conduct strip and cavity searches. As was standard procedure, the search was videotaped. The women were placed in restraints and leg irons and forced to wear paper gowns.

Footage of the invasive, hours-long process provoked outrage after it was obtained by the CBC and aired on the Fifth Estate.

The case led to an inquiry headed by former Supreme Court Justice Louise Arbour. Arbour’s report, delivered in 1996, found the women’s treatment was “cruel, inhumane, and degrading.” Arbour issued a raft of recommendations — including rules barring men from strip searching female prisoners.

“A crime was committed there,” said one of the women, who testified she saw other men including two construction workers watching the procedure. “And if something like that happened down the street, that’s a crime. If you go in an apartment and rip girls’ clothes off, that’s a crime. That’s sexual assault.”

‘Rife with … sexual assault’

Sexual violence also was at the heart of a major lawsuit brought by four former employees at Edmonton Institution, a federal maximum-security prison in northeast Edmonton.

The lawsuit described a workplace “rife with discrimination, harassment, bullying, abuse of authority and sexual assault” over a period of years. None of the plaintiffs or alleged abusers are named in the suit. No statements of defence have been filed.

One ex-employee, identified by the pseudonym Andrea, claims that a senior male co-worker made sexual advances at work and threatened to sexually assault her after handcuffing her to a chair.

Jessica, another ex-employee, claims she was sexually harassed daily for 10 years at Edmonton Institution. She also makes claims against the senior male co-worker identified by Andrea, including that he would “parade” around the office with his penis exposed and use it to “stir” female coworkers’ unattended drinks.

Jessica also said she was stalked by another male coworker who would inappropriately touch her and leave gifts in her car, including sex toys. During one evening shift, she claims the man bent her over a desk and handcuffed her to the desk through her underwear.

It was an environment, she said, where conversations between coworkers inevitably turned to sex. “It always turns to sex talk over time,” she said in the lawsuit.

Canada’s current correctional investigator, Ivan Zinger, spoke about the allegations at Edmonton Institution in his annual report released last month.

“If staff disrespect, humiliate or (abuse) each other one can only imagine how they might treat prisoners,” he wrote.

Some systems have ‘virtually eradicated’ sexual assault

Correctional Investigator of Canada Howard Sapers. (File photo)

Jesse Lerner-Kinglake, spokesperson for the human rights group Just Detention International, said one thing learned from data gathered under the U.S.’s Prison Rape Elimination Act is that prison rape is preventable.

“There are some prisons and jails that have horrifically high rates of sexual violence, and others that have virtually eradicated it.”

“Sexual abuse happens in prisons and jails and detention facilities that are poorly run,” he added. “If you have a well-run facility, you won’t have a problem with sexual abuse.”

It’s possible, then, that Canada has largely eliminated sexual assault within cell walls simply by running its prisons better.

Ellenbogen, the academic who studied U.S. and Canadian prisons, wrote that while the U.S. is known to have “extremely high” prison rape rates, Canada was not reputed to have a problem of the same magnitude.

Ellenbogen identified three things the Canadian system does differently that may reduce sexual violence: smaller correctional facilites, shorter sentences, and sex offender segregation. Perhaps most significantly, Canada has much lower incarceration rates. One study he cites argues sexual violence is less common in Canadian prisons “largely because the size of the prison population is manageable.”

Sapers said Canada needs to do more to understand sexual violence in prisons and jails regardless of whether it’s better or worse off than other countries.

“I think there are some other correctional systems … that have much more candid conversations about this issue, and acknowledge it’s a problem more readily than … we do in Canada,” he said.

jwakefield@postmedia.com

twitter.com/jonnywakefield

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