'Antiquated' Sask. penitentiary slammed in prison watchdog's report

Canada's prison watchdog is raising the alarm about conditions at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary, saying they are "not conducive to modern and humane correctional practice."

Investigator says inmate concerns over food quality, portions contributed to deadly prison riot

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)

Canada's prison watchdog is raising the alarm about conditions at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary, describing the Prince Albert facility as "forbidding and antiquated."

In an annual report released Tuesday, correctional investigator Ivan Zinger raised concerns about several issues including conditions at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary and the treatment of mentally ill female inmates in B.C. and Yukon.

He said inmate concerns over portion size and quality of food contributed to a riot at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary that left one inmate dead in December last year. Questions about hygiene conditions and access to basic needs such as showers and exercises were also noted in the report. 

Zinger's office has also asked Correctional Service Canada (CSC) to explain its use of force by officers responding to the riot, during which 36 kilograms of pepper spray was deployed.

'Palpable sense of tension lingers'

Zinger wrote of his impressions when he visited the penitentiary after the riot.

"In search of some other plausible explanation for the incomprehensible violence and mayhem beyond bad or inadequate food, I noted that some of the cells in that forbidding and antiquated facility housed two inmates even though there is barely adequate space for one," he writes in the report.

"Standing in the middle of another cell, I could reach out and touch the sides of both walls. Long after the rage of the riot had been quelled, a palpable sense of tension lingers in that facility."

Zinger said the majority of inmates were "young, desperate Indigenous men," adding that he believes the over-representation of Indigenous people in custody is one of Canada's most pressing human rights issues.

He pointed out that at two of the largest and oldest penitentiaries in Canada – Saskatchewan Penitentiary and Stony Mountain Institution in Manitoba — are in the Prairies and the majority of their inmates are Indigenous.

"The antiquated conditions of confinement that prevail in these two institutions are not conducive to modern and humane correctional practice, nor responsive to the unique needs of Indigenous prisoners," he wrote.

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)

CSC, in a written response to CBC News, says it has completed a comprehensive review of Zinger's report and agrees the issues identified "are critically important."

"Though our approaches may differ, given that we must also manage the operational, financial and staffing realities that come with making any changes, we believe we are making progress toward our shared goals."

Deadly riot

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

The regional president of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers said at the time that the riot may have been triggered by a simmering dispute over food portions.

Prisoners are fed under a standardized menu in which each offender's meal provides 2,600 calories, 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.

CSC says all meals for federally sentenced offenders are adequate, contain appropriate nutritional content, and that serving sizes are in accordance with Canada's Food Guide. 

Correctional Investigator on prison food

5 years ago
Duration 0:50
Correctional Investigator of Canada Dr. Ivan Zinger explains why food has become a tradeable black market commodity in Canada's prisons

Zinger's report said on the day of the riot, there were unresolved demands and dissatisfaction over food, such as shortages, replacement items, portion size and protein allotment. 

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

He said inmate kitchen workers were also unhappy about their treatment by CSC staff, and there were concerns over pay, hours and incentives.

"When last-minute attempts to resolve these issues failed, tensions escalated," said the report. 

"Demands and ultimatums were traded by both sides with inmates refusing to report to work and the warden eventually ordering a lockdown of the institution."

He said the start of the riot coincided with the call to inmate work at about 1 p.m. CST.

Zinger called for a priority external audit of CSC 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.

In a written response posted on the CSC website Tuesday, the service said it is conducting an internal audit of food services for the fiscal year of 2017-2018, which will be published in the second half of next year.

CSC said it will also adhere to Zinger's recommendation that the findings of the investigation into the riot be widely circulated within CSC and released publicly. It also plans to develop a Lessons Learned Bulletin, to share best practices identified by the investigation into the riot.

Calls for B.C. female inmates with mental health issues to go to Saskatoon 

Zinger was also blunt in his description of CSC's treatment of mentally-ill female inmates needing emergency treatment. 

The report says that female inmates from the Pacific Region — B.C. and Yukon — who need emergency health care or hospitalization are transferred to stay at an all-male regional psychiatric facility.

It said women are kept separate from the male inmates in "segregation-like conditions not conducive to treatment."

Zinger said the practice discriminates against women struggling with mental health problems. 

"It is totally unacceptable and contrary to international human rights standards, including the Mandela Rules," he writes in the report.

Zinger called for the women to instead be sent to the female unit of the Regional Psychiatric Centre in Saskatoon, or preferably a local community psychiatric hospital.

CSC said in its written response that it supports his recommendation to send the women to local facilities, agreeing that it would enhance the continuum of care and minimize the women's dislocation from their home communities. 

The service said it was working to minimize the number of inmates sent to the regional psychiatric centres, an approach that would be "enshrined in policy" this year.

"CSC will further require that these placements be done on the recommendation of the treating physician and that any woman placed at RTCs will be monitored by both the regional and national complex mental health committees," said the service.