Close Contact

Inside Alberta’s controversial new “direct-supervision” prison

By Omar Mouallem

The Correctional peace officer counts his inmates differently than his colleagues in other units of the Edmonton Remand Centre do. Each prisoner stands at ease beside his cellmate outside his cell door, awaiting the former chief military officer’s call. “From the right,” commands the officer, who left the Canadian Forces to run the prison’s so-called Boot Camp Unit, “count!”

Beginning at the third tier, where the guard places his best-behaved men, the count begins: “One!” Foot stomp. “Two!” Foot stomp. From right to left, from top tier to bottom, all 62 men make themselves known.

The Boot Camp Unit inmates are awaiting trial. The average pretrial inmate’s time in an Alberta remand is 18 days. Most of these prisoners are charged with non-violent offences, such as breaching probation or failing to attend court. A third of those remanded are charged with assault, uttering threats, sexual offences or even homicide. About 8 per cent of remand inmates remain there for one to two years, often because their cases are complex and they are denied bail. To break the monotony of jail, many of those with longer remand time apply to be in the Remand Centre’s only unit that is run like the military. “They earn their way up to the top,” explains the officer. “It’s for their behaviour, cleanliness, performance and attitude.”

After roll call, he assembles the men for a squad drill. The cadence song was penned by the boot camp inmates, who call themselves “1 Alpha.” The group frequently changes, as dozens of remand inmates are admitted and released daily. Even so, these men, says the officer, are the best of the best—vetted and screened for the program that began when the new Edmonton Remand opened in April 2013.

Novel as Boot Camp Unit is, it could not exist without an innovation that affects nearly all the units at Edmonton Remand. Opposite the cells, at the far corner of the octagonal room, there’s an L-shaped wooden desk with computers, paperwork and two of the officer’s colleagues hanging out in the open. That’s it. That’s the innovation: correctional officers are hanging out in the open. That signifies that this is a direct-supervision facility.

Although the 36-year-old brown remand tower in downtown Edmonton was replaced by this sprawling super-jail on the city’s outskirts, the units in both are architecturally similar: three tiers of cells on two sides of a communal area where inmates are free to come and go until curfew or mealtimes, or until a “lockdown,” at which time they are confined to their double-bunk cells. The units in the new remand also have an additional tier, with accents of lime green on finishes and furnishings—and, to the delight of inmates, TVs larger than a shoebox. Still, the only major design difference is whether or not the guards’ desks are behind bulletproof glass.

The new model is designed to lessen physical and psychological barriers—allowing guards to manage behaviour.

The glass and concrete wall that formerly separated inmates and officers was known as “the bubble.” By popping that bubble, the hope is that some of the psychological barriers will be dismantled along with the physical ones. The Boot Camp Unit is just a showy example of what’s possible when both sides interact regularly.

“The inmate-to-guard interaction is steady all day, so you get pretty close with the guards,” says Chris, a raspy-voiced inmate who lives in 1 Alpha’s premier cell. “Anytime [the officer] comes by, he asks me how I’m getting along.” Sometimes they talk about what Chris will do with his life after he’s out. Other times they talk about Chris’s former work, pouring concrete. It’s hard to imagine these conversations taking place over an intercom.

On a Monday morning, “Junior,” a middle-aged man with a slight Newfoundland accent, sits in the office of his attorney wearing muddy track pants and a faded T-shirt. After a 14-month stay in the Edmonton Remand, awaiting trial on felony charges, he was released on bail just 64 hours prior to trial, at 3:00 a.m. Across the table is Tom Engel, a defence counsel who represented 27 inmates in a nine-year lawsuit against the Alberta government for conditions at the old Edmonton Remand. The 2010 decision deemed the conditions for inmates “cruel and unusual,” citing breached Charter rights, poor air quality, inadequate medical care and racial discrimination, among the many violations.

Today Engel’s small office is in a heritage building close to the Provincial Law Courts and a block away from the old, infamous and now closed Edmonton Remand. Junior remembers the inside of that building well, having spent as long as six months there during his several apprehensions. In fact, he’s done the “Alberta Tour,” having experienced seven of the nine prisons under provincial governance over the course of 24 years. He places the new remand on the good end of that spectrum. “They actually treat you with respect,” says Junior. “They call you ‘sir,’ ask how your day is going, ‘How’s your coffee, do you have enough sugar?’”

As for the old remand: “Soon as they [the guards] get behind that glass they have a big chip on their shoulder,” he says. “They feel safe; ‘I’m the man, I can do what I want, I don’t give a shit what you have to say because I can get behind the bubble.’” He says the correctional officers rarely stepped onto the unit unless there were four or five together.

Research has found less stress, suicide, vandalism, contraband and theft in direct-supervision jails. The model also costs less.

Research has found less stress, suicide, vandalism, contraband and theft in direct-supervision jails. The model also costs less. (Ben Lemphers)

When it came time to construct the new Edmonton Remand—Canada’s largest prison, with a capacity for 1,952 men and women—the Solicitor General committed to a “direct-supervision model” designed to lessen physical and psychological barriers, a system that allows guards to manage behaviour directly rather than just observing it. Wayne Reddon, executive director of Adult Centre operations, says, “It’s a best-practice, evidence-based correctional management tool.” He believes future Alberta prisons will adhere to this model. “We’ve accepted direct supervision as the way ahead.”

Whether correctional officers have accepted it, however, is another matter. Corrections Canada’s research shows that front-line staff—guards, primary workers, parole officers—view these institutions as less safe. Inmates may feel good about being closer to staff, but the staff often feel the inmates are too close for comfort. “Once you’re in the protective zone you can sit back a little bit and you don’t have to watch your back,” explains a veteran officer, on condition of anonymity. “You can look out and monitor without having to worry about your own safety.”

Fifteen days after the Edmonton Remand Centre opened in 2013, an RCMP riot team was summoned to the institution. Seventy guards had staged an illegal strike because, according to the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees that represents them, the super-jail’s design violated occupational health and safety laws by making officers vulnerable to potentially violent offenders. Soon sheriffs, court clerks and other prisons’ staff were picketing in solidarity. The protest made national headlines.

Similar situations have developed elsewhere in Canada. In 2011, guards at a BC institution stopped just short of striking over issues of insufficient staffing and the jail’s openness. A 265 per cent spike in assaults on jail staff in Ontario in recent years has led some guards to blame direct-supervision methods. Similar unrest among prison guards exists across North America, and judging by how quickly and seamlessly the RCMP stepped in at the Edmonton Remand when guards there went on strike, it’s hard to believe the Solicitor General didn’t see conflict coming.

A figure at the centre of the 2013 Edmonton Remand strike was Todd Ross, a correctional officer who spent the first 18 years of his career at the two Edmonton remands. In 2011 Ross voiced concerns on a committee overseeing the design of the new facility. Despite training for direct supervision and piloting it at the old facility, Ross, acting on behalf of his colleagues, requested that 60 per cent of the new units keep “the bubble.” Management refused. Before one of his first shifts at the new prison, Ross sent a heated email to management and copied it to the province’s deputy solicitor general. A fellow prison officer replied to Ross in strong language and his reply went to the entire distribution list of Ross’s email. The result was suspension for both officers. When word of this disciplining spread to their colleagues, all of the guards walked.

The officers were forced back on the job after five days, but AUPE still stands by its criticisms of “design flaws” at Edmonton Remand. In April 2015, security footage was leaked to CTV showing an Edmonton Remand inmate blindsiding a guard behind the desk with a cup of hot water, then jabbing him in the face with a broomstick. In a televised interview about the attack, Ross told reporters, “There’s a lot of violence that happens in the jail daily.” Ross has since been reinstated as a correctional peace officer and works at the Fort Saskatchewan Correctional Centre, a direct-supervision facility.

Wayne Reddon oversees all the adult prisons in Alberta for inmates serving “two years less a day.” He’s also the former director at the Fort Saskatchewan facility. He says that by encouraging frequent and closer interactions between guards and inmates, the former become role models and the latter learn how best to de-escalate volatile situations “without punching someone in the face.”

When it opened in 1988, Fort Saskatchewan was Alberta’s only primarily direct-supervision adult prison, a distinction it held until the new Edmonton Remand opened. Calgary’s remand has retrofitted 21 per cent of its units to direct supervision since 1993. With the exception of Kainai Community Centre, a residence-style prison managed by a non-profit society and elders for the Blood First Nation, the remaining five adult prisons in the provincial system—Peace River, Red Deer, Lethbridge, Medicine Hat, Calgary Correctional Centre—use “indirect supervision.”

Under indirect supervision, guards step into the common area a couple times per shift to count heads, or, when necessary, to intervene in violent situations. They communicate with inmates by intercom. Criminologists now believe this approach is too isolating and reactive. It allows assault, rape, theft and gang affiliation among inmates to go unchecked. But the bubble doesn’t only put prisoners at risk of each other. “Having that wall between (guards and inmates) makes it easier for them to be nasty to each other,” says Richard E. Wener, a professor of environmental psychology at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University.

According to a 1989 study by Jay Farbstein & Associates Inc. with Wener, direct-supervision prisons in the US reported far fewer violent incidents than indirect supervision prisons did. A survey of correctional administrators also rated the direct-supervision model higher on measures of safety. Inmates also favoured the open design, even though it made it more difficult to evade their watchers’ eyes.

It might seem ironic that inmates prefer a model that makes it easier for guards to catch “the play”—cigarettes, home-brew and other contraband. But even in society’s darkest corners there’s a desire for some order and civility.

Most Canadians will have seen examples of direct supervision, if only on TV. On shows such as Orange is the New Black, HBO’s OZ and NBC’s Lockup, the scenes of unobstructed interaction between guards and offenders show direct supervision in action. Most European prisons also operate under direct supervision. The term was born in the US during the 1970s, when over-imprisonment put heavy demands on state and federal budgets. Besides humanizing the environment of US prisons, direct supervision costs less.

Direct supervision, however, is sometimes dismissed as "soft on crime," with critics calling it a "hug-a-thug" prison model.

Direct supervision, however, is sometimes dismissed as “soft on crime,” with critics calling it a “hug-a-thug” prison model. (Ben Lemphers)

The first three direct-supervision jails built in the US had wooden doors, porcelain toilets, table lamps and moveable chairs. Inmates wore everyday clothing. The thinking was that ever-present guards wouldn’t allow situations to escalate to the point where fragile furnishings would be damaged. “It was a more normalized environment,” says Wener. “They wanted it to look more like a residence and less like an institution.”

Professor Wener’s research, published in the journal Criminal Justice and Behaviour, found a decrease of stress, vandalism, maintenance, contraband, suicide and theft in direct-supervision jails. He wrote that they “address the social and psychological needs of inmates and staff by assuring personal safety, providing privacy for inmates, making it clear the officer is in charge of the living area and setting positive behavioral expectations.”

Wener’s research found that direct-supervision prisons’ construction cost per bed was more than $30,000 cheaper than other models. Annual maintenance was also significantly less expensive, as was cost of staff. According to Wener, not only did US direct-supervision prisons hire 123 fewer positions per 1,000 inmates, they had less staff turnover and time lost to sick days and injuries. This lower bottom line may also be influencing Canadian governments to select direct supervision.

If Edmonton Remand is not getting the results the direct-supervision model is known for, as guards attest, one problem might that the model is not being fully applied. Steve Carter, a pioneer of direct supervision, notes that direct-supervision prisons have strayed so far from the model’s original principles that they are at best hybrids. The jails may have removed the most obvious barriers that breed animosity, but the environments are still far from normalized. This would seem to apply to Edmonton Remand, where inmates walk on concrete floors, among bolted chairs and tables, and eat their meals on wall-mounted desks while locked in their cells.

Meals served in cells strikes a nerve with Carter. “The premise of direct-supervision units is opportunity for supervized socialization, and dining together is one of the most important opportunities,” he explains. “Leaving inmates to dine in their cells is usually a sign of punishment, inappropriate staffing levels or laziness.”

Carter is resigned to the fact that pure direct supervision is less embraced in North America today than during the pioneering 1970s and 1980s. Despite its economic benefits, it is often dismissed as “soft on crime,” and some have nicknamed it a “hug-a-thug” prison model. Of the modern hybrids, Carter says, “One could say they are a partial retrenchment. But still, during daylight hours, an officer or officers are there on the floor with those inmates, and (the inmates) are out of their cells, interacting. That’s what direct supervision is about.”

AUPE vice-president and veteran correctional peace officer Erez Raz is a gruff man. He sports a gold chain and goatee and has a large tattoo on his arm. He speaks his mind with little filter. “It’s like management doesn’t have our back,” he says, sitting in the union’s west Edmonton office.

Raz believes that direct supervision is not only ineffective but dangerous. When inmates overhear guards’ conversations, sometimes about their personal lives, he feels it opens up officers to manipulation: “These guys have a way of listening and getting inside your head.” The previous model, he adds, only forced guards to be alert when they stepped out of the bubble or worked in admissions and discharge. “The body was able to relax. Now there are inmates among you all the time. So, on an eight-hour shift, you’re on constant alert.”

When the Alberta government announced it would fund Edmonton’s new remand centre, AUPE designated a few members, including Todd Ross, to sit on the construction and design committee. Raz was optimistic that the union would have meaningful say, but says it was quickly apparent their presence was token.

Another officer familiar with the committee proceedings claims the union was willing to accept direct supervision if the government was willing to commit to it fully. “I like to joke that direct supervision is in the toilet,” says this source. “Because if you put a stainless steel toilet in a cell, you ain’t looking to have a well-behaved inmate. You’re assuming you’re going to have a riot and he’s going to bust things. …When we lost our argument for porcelain toilets, direct supervision was in the toilet.” But Raz says that AUPE advocated for meal slots on doors in the new remand, which means they were pushing for meals in cells. Hence, the union was also not committed to direct supervision in its purest form.

By interacting with guards, prisoners learn how to de-escalate situations “without punching someone in the face.”

It’s difficult to know how much AUPE’s resistance to direct supervision has to do with the model itself and how much owes to the tarnished relationship between that union and the Alberta government. The dispute over prison design may be left over from AUPE’s 2007 “Change the Law” campaign for full bargaining rights, including the right to strike. The battle was still going on during Alison Redford’s premiership when Tim Grant, deputy minister to the Solicitor General, and deputy premier Thomas Lukaszuk traded highly publicized jabs with AUPE over the remand strike of 2013. In December that year, the Alberta government passed bills that froze provincial employee wages, bound their right to arbitration and imposed huge fines for illegal strikes. The new fines were even steeper than those issued after the wildcat strike at Edmonton Remand.

Raz says the relationship has improved since these bills were repealed under Premier Jim Prentice. Tim Grant has also been moved out of the Justice department since the NDP’s 2015 victory. Still, one does not need x-ray vision to trace the toxic residue.

“I don’t know at what point we lost trust,” says Raz. “When I started …there was a culture of us and management against the inmates. It was us against them. Whereas now, it seems like it’s the inmates against us and management against us.”

Defence lawyer Tom Engel is astonished by Raz’s statement. “That is completely unprofessional and unacceptable, and illustrates the problem of correctional service in Alberta, that you have guards with this mentality. If you look at their training materials and code of ethics, you won’t find anything like that in there. …That’s the punishment mentality, and it has infected the correctional service. They need to weed those people out and get professionals in there.”

In fact, a changing of the guards is well under way. While Engel’s client “Junior” says “us versus them” perfectly characterizes remand guards’ attitudes during his most recent stay in 2012, it wouldn’t describe the atmosphere he experienced two years later at the new remand. Whereas he remembers the correctional officers at the old facility as “assholes,” “dicks” and “mean,” officers at the new remand are “humans, just like us. You give respect, you get respect.” This sentiment is echoed almost verbatim by Edmonton Remand correctional officer Neil Benner. “Once you show trust, they’ll give it right back in return.”

Officer Benner’s 20-year career has been spent at Fort Saskatchewan and the two Edmonton remands. That makes him an increasingly rare species. On Junior’s last visit to Edmonton Remand, the vast majority of guards were young and unfamiliar to him.

Kim Sanderson, acting assistant deputy minister of Alberta Justice and Solicitor General, replaced Tim Grant after the NDP was elected. She stands by direct supervision, which she compares to a classroom. “[Indirect supervision] is like having a teacher in a bubble, just supervising, as opposed to a teacher walking among the students.” If the officers are not present, “it’s easy for the inmates to run the unit.” She adds, “Staff are given the opportunity to act as role models.”

Ted McCoy, author of Hard Time: Reforming the Penitentiary in Nineteenth-Century Canada, says, “Prison officers were always regarded as potential role models to inmates. They’d create moral outcomes.” In the 19th century, for example, the government specifically hired “white, middle-class respectable married women to look after these fallen women in hopes that they’d see something to aspire to.” But the question is: Do modern day correctional officers see themselves that way?
“Let’s go back 18 years ago, when I started,” says Raz, referencing the inexperience of new remand hires. “What kind of a role model am I to someone who’s been doing crime for 30 years? I’m not going to change who they are.”

Tom Engel likens a guard who is reluctant to interact with inmates to a “steelworker who’s afraid of heights.” But he does allow that some of the distrust has been carried over from the former remand, a place so “poisonous” that neither prisoners nor guards had anything good to say about it. The new remand was supposed to repair that reputation.

Alberta’s Department of Justice and Solicitor General remains patient with the guards who struggle with the changes, but the ministry is determined to make direct supervision the new normal. “As time goes on,” says Sanderson, “they’ll have more staff members who’ve only ever worked in the direct-supervision model. It becomes the way you do business.”

Edmonton’s Omar Mouallem is a National Magazine Award-winning writer. Comment on this story:


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