March 12, 2018 10:14 pm
Updated: March 26, 2018 5:04 pm

Female prison guards allege years of harassment, sexual abuse by male guards in $43.4M lawsuit

WATCH: Four female prison guards in Edmonton are launching a $43-million lawsuit, alleging sexual assault, physical abuse and even waterboarding by their colleagues. As Abigail Bimman reports, some of the details are disturbing.

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A warning this story contains details of sexual harassment some readers may find disturbing.

Four female employees at the Edmonton Institution have launched a $43.4-million lawsuit against their union and employer alleging years of disturbing and damaging abuse. In large part, not by the male offenders at the maximum security federal prison – but by the men they worked alongside.

“Jessica,” as she is identified in the statement of claim filed in Edmonton court last week, began working for Correctional Service Canada (CSC) in 2007 with dreams of becoming a police officer.

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By the end of her career in 2016, she stopped wearing her body armour, hoping an inmate would stab her to death to “end her ordeal.” Today, she is in hiding, “incapable of living her life,” fearing repercussions from her alleged abusers and CSC management.

For nearly a decade in between, court documents allege she faced sexual harassment daily, mainly from another guard identified as John Doe #1, and later on from his partner, John Doe #6. Doe #1 is identified in all four women’s allegations. He initially presented himself to Jessica, and others, as a protector figure.

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But his alleged behaviour was disturbing – using his genitalia to stir female staff’s beverage, and then informing them about it later, and laughing. Jessica claims he would chase after her with his penis in his hand, as well as urinate into rubber gloves, tie them off, and threaten to throw them at her – following through twice.

“He could make me laugh so hard, then crush my ego at the next moment,” she’s quoted as saying. Neither Jessica, nor the other three women, nor their lawyer Jeffrey O’Brien would do an interview about these allegations.

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In a bathroom in December 2015, Doe #6 is accused of forcing Jessica’s head in the space between the dirty toilet water and Doe #1’s buttocks as he sat on the toilet. After that, she claims she suffered heightened verbal abuse and/or sexual violence every day, including waterboarding and having her hair pulled while her face was slammed onto hard surfaces.

The statement of claim also details incidents where management is accused of witnessing bad behaviour, or failing to protect Jessica from harm – including not warning her inmates were planning to gang rape and murder her, when they were alleged to have known about in advance. (She learned an hour before the incident and left, although the document doesn’t explain the details.)

WATCH: Shocking allegations of harassment at Edmonton Institution

“The union provided no support for her,” reads the statement of claim. “Her abusers all had prominent positions in the union, and for the most part still do.” Doe #1 was the union’s vice-president.

The Union of Canadian Correctional Officers declined an interview and won’t comment on the case as it’s now before the courts. In a statement, it said it “firmly condemns all forms of harassment” and “will continue it’s (sic) work to promote a harassment-free environment at all federal facilities, including the Edmonton Institution.”

CSC also issued a statement saying, “We do not tolerate harassment in our organization and we take this matter very seriously.”

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The minister responsible for the file had more direct words. “Allegations of that nature are simply unacceptable. This alleged behaviour has no place in any public or private institution,” Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale told reporters at an event in Regina on Monday.

There is a history at the Edmonton Institution. In January, six staff members were fired after an investigation into harassment and intimidation of other staff and inmates. The Edmonton Police Service launched its own separate investigation into possible criminal activity at the federal institution. Edmonton police tell Global News that investigation is still ongoing now.

READ MORE: 2 more Edmonton Institution workers fired amid harassment investigation

Last year, a workplace assessment by TLS Enterprises described the prison as having a “toxic environment” and made dozens of recommendations for change, including hiring a new warden and management team, according to CSC. A new warden, Gary Sears, was appointed in January.

“The investigation will be thorough,” Goodale said Monday of the new civil suit. “Both within the CSC and externally with police, and appropriate consequences will follow.”

Overall, the 45-page statement of claim alleges the Edmonton Institution “is a workplace rife with discrimination, harassment, bullying, abuse of authority and sexual assault,” as well as a Corrections culture of “toxic masculinity and rampant misogyny.”

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The other three women’s histories and disturbing allegations are given in detail. While each case is different, harassment and abuse are present throughout.

Among other things, “Andrea” was ridiculed for her Serbian background. She alleges Doe #1 tried to force himself on her multiple times, and, like Jessica, handcuffed her to a chair. Andrea made a formal complaint about his sexual harassment, and was granted a no-contact order. She alleges in spite of the no-contact order, Doe #1 was assigned to handle her accommodation while pregnant. Andrea says she had several issues with the Institution around pregnancy accommodation and when returning from maternity leave, including not being given a regular paycheque for 3.5 months.

WATCH: Workplace sexual harassment exists in Canada

In 2017, the statement of claim alleges she was wrongfully terminated, accused of falling asleep while on suicide watch, which she denies.

“Samantha” was a Corrections employee for the longest of the four women – she began in 1999. Openly gay, she alleges she was often ridiculed for that. While she complained, no action was taken. Specifically, she tried to file a formal grievance after a recording surfaced of two employees making sexual comments about her, “but the Union president laughed at the conversation and described it as ‘locker-room talk.’”

She is now on stress leave, dealing with depression, panic attacks and symptoms of PTSD.

Finally, “Sarah” also describes challenges around accommodation needed after returning from maternity leave. Her allegations also include a mishandled incident with a fentanyl-laced letter that was placed eight feet from her desk in July 2017. While other staff went to the hospital, and the visitor security area was quarantined, Sarah only learned what happened days later.

Of the four women, Sarah is the only one still working at the Edmonton Institution, but in a “reduced capacity which is tantamount to constructive dismissal.” The statement of claim says she has gained 90 pounds and her high blood pressure has been made worse by stress.

“Wearing the CSC uniform cost Sarah her dignity.”

None of the allegations has been proven in court.

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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