The federal government is promising a new strategy to curb sexual violence and coercion in prisons after Canada’s correctional investigator warned of systemic abuse behind bars.

In his annual report tabled in Parliament today, prison watchdog Ivan Zinger said sexual victimization exists in the “shadows” in penitentiaries and is largely ignored or dismissed as an inevitable consequence of incarceration.

“My investigation confirms that sexual violence is a pervasive but underreported problem in federal prisons. We know that sexualized violence and abuse thrive in a culture of silence or organizational indifference,” he said in a media statement. 

“I was disturbed to find considerable gaps in the Correctional Service of Canada’s approach to detecting, investigating and preventing sexual coercion and violence behind bars.”

Zinger called on CSC to have an “open and honest conversation” about the scope of the problem.

Responding to Zinger’s report, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said offenders should be able to serve out their sentences in dignity and without fear.

“A zero-tolerance approach to sexual coercion and violence is fundamental to CSC’s operations to protect the physical and mental health and overall safety of those who live and work within federal correctional institutions,” he said in a media statement. 

Blair said CSC and the Department of Public Safety will research a strategy to detect, prevent and respond to sexual coercion and violence in federal institutions. The study will look at the impact of sexual violence on vulnerable populations, such as inmates suffering from trauma or mental health issues, women and LGBT offenders. An interim report is to be completed by spring 2021.

Right now, CSC is not required to report publicly on incidents of sexual abuse involving federal inmates. Zinger said his investigation found that CSC has never conducted any national research or studies in this area and has no stand-alone policy on how staff should respond to and prevent sexual abuse.

Zinger said victims don’t often report incidents of abuse because they fear retaliation or re-victimization by the perpetrator, whether that perpetrator is another inmate or a staff member.

“They face the risk of not being believed, being ridiculed or even punished for reporting coerced sex. Most incidents are not investigated, and rarely or ever reach the courts,” he said.

Zinger said CSC has no coordinated approach to detecting and managing repeat or chronic perpetrators. He said alleged perpetrators are often shuffled around an institution, or transferred to another prison, without anyone taking steps to prevent future abuse.

Zinger called for legislative measures to endorse a zero-tolerance and a preventive approach to sexual abuse and violence in prisons and said CSC should be required to publicly report and respond to incidents. 

He is also urging the federal government to fund a national study by experts to determine the scope of the problem.

“Sexualized violence is a systemic problem in prison, and is not tolerated in any other part of Canadian society. It is time that we took steps to eradicate it from our prison system,” he said.

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