Investigator blasts Sask. Penitentiary over fatal riot

By Taylor MacPherson
November 1, 2017 - 2:00pm

The Saskatchewan Penitentiary has come under fire from the Office of the Correctional Investigator for the systemic problems which led to a fatal riot last December.

In his annual report on Canada’s federal prisons, Correctional Investigator Dr. Ivan Zinger said the Saskatchewan Penitentiary in Prince Albert is one of the oldest and most antiquated in the nation. While the 2016 riot was ostensibly caused by inmate complaints around food, Zinger said a number of broader issues also contributed to the riot, which included nearly 200 inmates.

More than just food

“Current research suggests that a lot must go wrong, and for quite some time, before a prison erupts in violence,” Zinger said. “Prison riots are not random or inevitable events; they are most likely to occur when a certain threshold of defiance and desperation is reached.”

Although the official investigation into the fatal riot has not yet concluded (criminal charges are pending against 14 inmates), Zinger said two senior investigators from his office identified issues at the facility surrounding personal health and hygiene, provision of basic living necessities such as showers and exercise, and access to legal counsel.

The heavy-handed response to the uprising by Correctional Service Canada (CSC) was also criticized by Zinger. His office has asked CSC to account for the high level of force used to suppress the rioting inmates, he said, noting shotguns and more than 36 kg of pepper spray were used by the penitentiary’s response teams.

CSC spends $5.41/day for inmate meals

Unsatisfactory prison food can often lead to aggression and unrest among inmates, Zinger said, but spending on food has been decreasing in Canada. Just $5.41 is allocated to feed each prisoner daily, he said. Standard recipes are used, which provide 2,600 calories to each inmate (sufficient for a low-activity male aged 31-50, according to Canada’s Food Guide). The constant search for savings, Zinger said, has led to reductions in food quality.

“Food is prepared in industrial-sized kettles and tanks up to two weeks in advance, chilled in bulk packaging, stored frozen then shipped to the institutions for ‘retherming,’” Zinger said. “Finishing kitchens add food items to the meal that must be prepared or served fresh.”

While Zinger recommended an external audit and evaluation of food services across federal prisons, CSC said an internal audit is planned for this fiscal year.

Ongoing concerns

Zinger said many of the same systemic issues which led to the violence still persist inside the federal prison. The Prince Albert institution continues to be the source of numerous complaints from inmates, he said, and although food procedures were reviewed in the aftermath of the riot, many prisoners are still expressing dissatisfaction.

“The high number of complaints brought forward to our office as well as continuing general unrest at this facility suggests that problems of a systemic nature persist,” Zinger said.

“Incredibly," Zinger added, "follow-up visits by this office have noted continuing issues with food at this facility."

Prairie prisons no longer up to standards

Correctional Service Canada’s prairie region appears to be lagging behind the rest of the country in many areas beyond just food, Zinger said. The watchdog slammed both the Saskatchewan Penitentiary and Manitoba’s Stony Mountain Institution for their poor conditions, saying the aging prisons no longer meet the standards required by modern corrections.

“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,” Zinger said.

The investigator recommended the lessons learned from the CSC investigation into the riot be distributed widely within the organization and be made available as a public document. According to CSC, the organization will develop a “Lessons Learned Bulletin” to share findings and best practices identified during the riot. A statement released by CSC said a summary of the investigation will be widely circulated inernally, and will be released publicly next month.

In an official statement, CSC Commissioner Don Head said he welcomes Zinger’s findings and noted CSC shares the investigator's concerns across many areas.

“We believe we are making progress towards our shared goals and desired outcomes,” Head said. “We always look for opportunities to improve the federal correctional system.”


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On Twitter: @TMacPhersonNews

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