When Cindy Chaisson was hired as a correctional officer at the Whitehorse jail she was prepared for some harassment.
But she didn’t expect it from coworkers.
“If I came in looking cranky, certain male guards would say, ‘What’s the matter, didn’t you get laid last night?’
“And they’d say it in front of inmates.”
Another guard told her, “It’s no wonder you don’t get laid — you might if you lose some weight.”
Chaisson didn’t realize she could report the abuse to the Yukon Human Rights Commission until another female guard did just that.
“There are human rights complaints against the jail because of how female guards are treated by older male guards,” she said.
“There’s a lot of power-tripping up there.”
The guards really “egg on the inmates too,” added Chaisson.
“They treat them disrespectfully and call them names.”
It’s a complaint many inmates have raised with the News over the past year.
However, requests to interview guards have been repeatedly denied by the Justice department.
“It’s not going to happen,” Justice spokesperson Chris Ross said on Wednesday morning.
“Keep trying though.”
The guards call the prisoners “scumbags and lowlifes, and tell them they’re not going to amount to anything,” said Chaisson, who is now president of the Yukon’s Elizabeth Fry Society.
“I even once heard a male guard call a female inmate a bitch.
“And they’ll kick the inmate’s beds saying, ‘Get the fuck out of bed.’
“But if the inmates turn around and say, ‘Fuck you,’ the next thing you know they’re up on charges for profanity toward a guard.”
They’re given what is called an in-house breach, and lose privileges, such as using the telephone, or are thrown in segregation — known as the Hole, she said.
Inmate Michael Nehass has been in the Hole for the last few weeks, and has been phoning the News repeatedly, complaining he is not allowed clothes and has to eat with his hands.
He’s not allowed to contact his family, said Nehass in a phone message.
Nehass was thrown in the Hole for spitting on a guard.
“The correctional officers just push you and push you until you blow up,” said past inmate Kerry Nolan, who is now a member of the Yukon’s Elizabeth Fry Society.
Sometimes there will be an altercation, and the inmate is not punished until two weeks later, when they go in front of the supervising correctional officer, added Chaisson.
“I mean, we wouldn’t do this to a child, so why do we do it to inmates — many are in situations where they are very much like children.”
It’s been nine years since Chaisson worked at the jail.
“When I started they were so shortstaffed I had one week of classroom training, one day on how to restrain someone, and then they threw us out on the floor,” she said.
“And since I’ve been there, I don’t think much has changed.”
Guards don’t even need CPR, she said.
“Even when I worked in security (for YTG) I needed CPR.”
New correctional officers are trained through an intensive three-day curriculum followed by 24 days of job shadowing, said Ross.
The correctional centre is always shortstaffed, added Chaisson.
There are currently 24 auxillary on-call corrections officers at the facility. Eight are women. There are 23 full-time correctional officers. Fourteen are men.
“Remember it shifts from week to week,” said Ross. “It’s such a small jurisdiction — people run short-staffed all the time.”
A lot of the full-time staff manipulate the schedule and snaffle extra days off, she said.
“So the auxiliaries are always maxed out.”
Chaisson remembers getting home from 12-hour shifts only to be called back four hours later.
“And how alert am I going to be?” she said.
“It’s a risk not only for myself, but for the inmates.”
And if there were big hockey or football games on, the female guards would be out on the floor while the male corrections officers sat in the staffroom watching TV, said Chaisson.
“There were lots of times I would do the count in the male dorms all by myself.
“I’ve been in other jails and I’ve never seen women in male dorms alone.”
The lack of staff limits the programming available for inmates, added Chaisson.
“The jail had a college teacher, that was pretty much the only programming.
“Except, if there were enough guards on, we’d allow an alcoholics anonymous meeting,” she said.
“There was absolutely nothing else.”
The jail’s also overcrowded, said Chaisson, mentioning the women’s dorm.
In 2001, when she was working at the jail, there were eight women in the dorm, and no bunks, she said.
“And one of the beds was blocking the fire exit.
“But when the inspector was coming, suddenly they moved in bunks, cleared the fire exit and moved one woman to segregation to bring the numbers down in the dorm.”
As soon as the inspection was over, they shifted everything back, she said.
“They’ve even taken people outside when they knew the inspector was coming so they don’t see the number of people in there.
“I’d like to see them do a surprise inspection one day.”
Chaisson, who worked at the jail for three years, would never work there again, she said.
Instead, she’s devoting her spare time to the Elizabeth Fry Society, “to try and improve the lives of the inmates.”
“I took a lot of harassment,” she said.