Corrections Canada investigation into Sask. Penitentiary riot 'superficial and self-serving,' watchdog says

The Office of the Correctional Investigator has slammed the Correctional Service of Canada's investigation into the 2016 deadly riot at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary as "superficial and self-serving."

Public safety minister says changes have been made to CSC's investigation board

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 prison watchdog is sounding the alarm over the Correctional Service of Canada's internal investigations after concluding the agency's probe into the deadly riot at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary lacked transparency and credibility.

CSC's investigation into the 2016 riot at the Prince Albert penitentiary, which left one inmate dead and two more seriously injured, was the subject of a special section in the Office of the Correctional Investigator's 2017-18 annual report, which was released Tuesday.

"It wasn't thorough; it wasn't credible; and it was very superficial," said federal correctional investigator Ivan Zinger, of the CSC internal review.

Zinger has previously pointed to inmate complaints about the quality of food and meals being too small as contributing factors to the event, in which 131 of the facility's 475 medium-security inmates rioted, causing $3.5 million in damages.

CSC's National Board of Investigation also investigated the riot and, according to the correctional investigator's office annual report, "it was obvious that the board's interpretation of these events differed significantly." The board found the riot was random and "unrelated" to food issues. 

The report describes the board's failure to properly investigate food quality, food shortages and meal portion size as "self-serving."

"The moment you say something is random and spontaneous and you cannot prevent it from happening, that means you don't have to look at anything in terms of area of improvement," Zinger told CBC Saskatchewan Afternoon Edition host Garth Materie.

"But I think it's important for even the staff to understand that if the internal investigation isn't credible, and there are no lessons learned, that this could happen again."

Only 1 inmate interviewed

The board only interviewed one inmate and "relied mostly on management's interpretation of events for its frame of reference," it says.

The watchdog's report details how the riot took place in five sections, or ranges, of the prison and two general population units, which housed a comparatively large number of inmates who were connected to gangs and a higher number of Indigenous prisoners. 

Moreover, the board labelled 21 inmates as instigators of the riot — 18 of whom were Indigenous and 11 of whom were tied to gangs, according to the annual report.

It concludes the board did not assess these demographics. 

"The Office contends that the rage and violence unleashed in the riot's rampage cannot be fully understood or explained without accounting for the presence, influence and concentration of gang-affiliated inmates on the implicated ranges."

It concluded the board's finding the riot was random was "highly improbable, superficial and self-serving."

The watchdog also said the internal report — which did not identify food issues as a factor in the riot — differed from the account provided publicly, with the report calling that discrepancy "an exercise in public relations and damage control."

Little focus on underlying causes: ombudsman

Zinger's office also recommends the minister of public safety conduct a review of the National Board of Investigation, with Zinger saying that he believed CSC had forfeited the right to investigate itself in cases involving deadly riots, deaths in segregation or deaths resulting from use of force. 

He also recommended CSC do an external audit of a food-services initiative. 

"A lot of the report is concerned with assessing staff and management's response in quelling the riot," the ombudsman's report says.

"A great deal of effort, attention and detail also went into identifying and assessing the degree of culpability of each of the 21 principal instigators," it reads. 

"Comparatively little attention, rigour or insight is brought to bear on identifying or understanding the riot's underlying triggers, causes or catalysts."

In response to the watchdog's report, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said in a statement to CBC that an examination of CSC's internal review process is underway and the findings are expected this fall. 

The statement goes on to say that changes have also already been made to the board since the riot. 

Corrections Canada responded to the report online, saying an audit of its food services was done in July and the findings would be published "in the coming months."

About the Author

Stephanie Taylor

Reporter, CBC Saskatchewan

Stephanie Taylor is a reporter based in Saskatchewan. Before joining CBC News in Regina, she covered municipal politics in her hometown of Winnipeg and in Halifax. Reach her at stephanie.taylor@cbc.ca