Internal review not enough to address food issue after Sask. riot: prison watchdog

Canada's correctional investigator says an internal audit is not the right way to deal with tensions over food quality and portions, which he says contributed to a deadly riot at the Saskatchewan penitentiary last year.

Ivan Zinger says Correctional Service of Canada needs broader external review of food services

A picture from the investigator's report showing debris in the corridors after the riot at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary in Prince Albert. (Annual Report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator)

Canada's correctional investigator says an internal audit is not the right way to deal with tensions over food quality and portions, which he says contributed to a deadly riot at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary last year.

Jason Leonard Bird, 43, was stabbed to death and two inmates were seriously injured when up to 200 prisoners rioted at the penitentiary last December.

An example of one day's meals from the national menu guidelines used by the Saskatchewan Penitentiary before the time of the riot in November, 2016. (Correctional Service of Canada)
In an annual report released in October, correctional investigator Ivan Zinger said unresolved demands, and dissatisfaction over food portion sizes and quality, contributed to the December riot. He also described cramped conditions and over-crowded cells at the Saskatchewan facility.

Zinger called for a priority external audit of Corrections Canada food services and for the concerns raised by inmates to be addressed. He also urged CSC to review its interpretation and implementation of the national menu guidelines and inmate complaints about food.

But CSC has only committed to an internal audit of its food services.

Zinger told CBC News on Saturday he doesn't think an internal review will be broad enough to identify and address problems with the way food is distributed to inmates.

"Food in some penitentiaries is becoming such a problem that it has turned into the underground economy and now people are being bullied to give away food, are supplementing their diet with food that is purchased through the canteen," said Zinger.

Prisoners are fed under a standardized menu in which each offender's meals provide 2,600 calories per day, which is the guideline for an inactive male aged 31-50. Spending cuts in 2014 resulted in a fixed daily food budget of $5.41 per inmate.

Zinger questioned whether that amount could provide enough food for active young men, who he said make up a large proportion of the prison population in Saskatchewan.

He said any review should not only examine the CSC interpretation of the national menu guidelines, but also investigate whether the changes to food provisions were worth the financial benefit.

"Many wardens know very well that you have to be very attentive to food in prison and make sure that if you are going to play with the menu that you do it in a thoughtful, careful [way] and [with] a great deal of consultation," said Zinger.

"Because you will create tension with playing with food."

Although he said food served at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary is still cooked by inmates, kitchen jobs for inmates disappeared at some Canadian facilities after they switched to a "cook and chill" system.

Meals at those facilities are delivered frozen and then reheated onsite.

"I doubt that an internal audit will look at, for example, all the lost jobs and opportunities to learn a valuable trade — cooking," said Zinger.

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

Cramped conditions worsened by riot: Zinger

In his annual report, Zinger also described cramped conditions in small cells in an "antiquated" facility he said is not designed to meet modern correctional standards.

Prior to the riot, he said the beds in some cells were on hinges so they could be folded up against the wall to make more space.

But those beds are being removed and replaced with ones that are bolted down after inmates pulled the beds off their hinges during the riot.

According to Zinger, new stainless steel toilets are also replacing porcelain toilet bowls that were smashed.

Zinger said the changes to the cells are part of the reason the cleanup bill from the riot has exceeded $3 million.

Investigator 'shocked' by conditions

When he visited the penitentiary, he was shocked by the conditions in the segregation areas.

He said plexiglass and mesh had been added to those cells, reducing airflow and possibly making the cells hotter in summer and colder in winter.  

Some sections of the prison don't meet international human rights standards, Zinger added.

"There's a dormitory in Saskatchewan Penitentiary which is quite crowded and it's a very large room and they sort of build partitions in between beds, but I'm hoping that this will have to be looked after," he said.

While there are population pressures in the Prairie regions, the investigator said there are over 1,000 empty cells across Canada.

He said infrastructure issues should be a priority for the federal corrections system.

Canada's correctional investigator, Ivan Zinger, visited the Saskatchewan Penitentiary to try to understand what caused a deadly riot that left one inmate dead in December 2016. (Annual Report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator)

Mental health treatment concerns

Greg Fleet, the executive director of the John Howard Society of Saskatchewan, said the penitentiary needs to be replaced.

He said practices such as "double-bunking" show that the penitentiary is housing more inmates than it was designed for.

Fleet said he is also hearing complaints about the standard of care for people with mental health illnesses.

"What we know is that [up] to 80 per cent of people that are incarcerated suffer from mental health and/or addiction issues, so living in these types of conditions only exacerbates their conditions," he said.

"We need to make sure that people that are incarcerated have effective programming and access to treatment for mental illness and addiction issues and we're not seeing that happening."

No plans to replace Sask. Penitentiary

Corrections Canada said there are currently no plans to replace the Saskatchewan Penitentiary, which opened in 1911. 

"While there are challenges in maintaining a building of its age and size along with ensuring necessary security features are in place, CSC is committed to meeting the standard living conditions for the offender population in a penitentiary," the agency said in a written statement.