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Deadly Saskatchewan prison riot likely sparked by bad food, official watchdog says

Small food portions and inferior quality are creating a black market in prisons

by Tamara Khandaker
Nov 1 2017, 2:07pm

A riot involving about 200 inmates at a Saskatchewan prison last year, where one inmate was murdered and eight others hospitalized with injuries, seems to have been caused by tensions over food, according to an annual report from Canada’s correctional investigator probing prison conditions.

“The immediate triggering events of the Saskatchewan Penitentiary riot appear to be related to unresolved demands regarding inmate dissatisfaction with food… as well as perceived mistreatment of inmate kitchen workers by [Correctional Service of Canada] staff,” said the report released on Tuesday.

An example of a vegan meal under the Correctional Service of Canada's national menu. (Annual Report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator)

Alan Zinger, in his first report as correctional investigator, the government’s prison watchdog, asked Correctional Services Canada (CSC) to look into allegations of conflicts between prison kitchen employees and inmate workers, and complaints about food shortages, portion sizes, and the daily protein allotment.

Two years before the 2016 riot, the Conservative government introduced a national prison menu in an attempt to cut costs. They also established “cook chill” production centres, where food is prepped, cooked, and chilled in a centralized kitchen before being shipped to prisons. These centers, as well as the menu changes, reduced the price of food to $5.41 per day for each inmate, saving the government $6.4 million annually. Powdered milk was substituted for fresh milk, bulky meat portions replaced more select cuts, expensive grains were cut out, vegetable selection was reduced, and English muffins were replaced by toast. These changes led to a rise in inmate grievances, the report said.

In some prisons, food is a commodity that’s sold, and traded for other items, including contraband

In some prisons, food is sold and traded for other items, including contraband, said the report, which recommended an external evaluation of food services that would address inmate concerns.

An audit of food services in prisons is currently underway, and it’s expected to be completed next year, according to the Ministry of Public Safety.

Aftermath of the riot at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary. (Annual Report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator)

Zinger also noted a number of other issues across the prison system, beyond food, including the lack of therapeutic services for women in Canada’s federal prisons. Conditions in secure units in maximum security jails aren’t appropriate for people struggling with serious mental illness, the report said. Zinger criticized the “entirely inappropriate” practice of temporarily housing mentally ill women in all-male treatment facilities and holding them in isolation.

The continued use physical restraints, clinical exclusion, and segregation to manage people who are in psychological distress is also problematic, Zinger’s report said. He noted that keeping inmates in observation cells with nothing but a security gown, a security blanket, fluids and food that can only be consumed without cutlery could actually worsen someone’s psychological issues.

“At (the) Edmonton Institution, I witnessed outdoor segregation ‘yards’ that were actually cages, easily mistaken for a dog run or kennel”

The amount of time and frequency inmates are spending in solitary confinement has dropped in Canada’s federal jails, according to the report, but some segregation cells still lack appropriate ventilation, windows and natural light, and segregation yards are no better.

“At (the) Edmonton Institution, I witnessed outdoor segregation ‘yards’ that were actually cages, easily mistaken for a dog run or kennel,” Zinger wrote. “I was told that these so-called ‘yards’ were built at a time when segregation numbers were double what they are today.”

A regular meal under the Correctional Service of Canada's national menu. (Annual Report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator)

Zinger said he’d seen many instances of inmates not “participating in any sort of educational, vocational or correctional programming,” that would allow them to find a job when released. He also noticed women mostly working in gendered roles, like textiles, laundry and sewing.

Corrections officials said they “welcome” Zinger’s report and pledged to follow through on some of its recommendations, like creating a bulletin about the lessons learned from the Saskatchewan riot to be distributed throughout the department. Federal prison official also say they fully support Zinger’s recommendation to provide care for mentally ill women prisoners at local hospitals, although in the interim, prisons will continue to treat women in all-male regional treatment centres in emergency circumstances.