Why we should care about the privatization of Saskatchewan’s prison services
By Denise Leduc
In late 2015 and again in January 2016, hunger strikes were initiated by inmates in Saskatchewan’s prisons over food issues. There were complaints of uncooked eggs, and meals that were nutritionally unsound.
The premier of Saskatchewan, Brad Wall, flippantly replied, “If you really don’t like the prison food, there’s one way to avoid it, and that’s don’t go to prison.”
On the surface, this may seem reasonable to some. It might be easy to dismiss the concerns of inmates, yet it is important to reflect upon the bigger picture.
In November of 2015, food services in Saskatchewan’s correctional facilities, which had been managed by public employees represented by SGEU, were turned over to the private British multinational, Compass Group. Almost immediately, there were issues over the quality of food now being served.
Over the past several years in the province of Saskatchewan the government has been privatizing industries including parts of our Crown corporations, hospital laundry services, food services at correctional facilities, and even newly built P3 schools.
But is this switch from public sector to private sector ownership a benefit to the province and the people who live here?
When the privatization of the prison system’s food services occurred, 62 workers lost their jobs. SGEU President Bob Bymoen says these workers were journeymen cooks who loved their job. These jobs provided a decent wage, benefits and a pension plan.
Not only did they provide food services to inmates, they often also provided programming opportunities. These workers worked with inmates on job skills. They helped them earn their Food Safe certificates.
There were even opportunities for inmates to earn a short order cooking certificate. In youth facilities, workers taught young offenders nutrition and developed relationships with these young people through mentoring and sharing meals with them.
Bymoen says, “Prison is meant to be punitive but also rehabilitative.”
The SGEU workers understood that eventually, all these inmates would be released, and giving them tools to succeed for that time is in the best interest of society.
Bymoen insists that the government sets the budget for food services and, while SGEU was willing to work within this rate, it was not given the opportunity.
The union also raises concerns over the fine print in the contract between the Saskatchewan government and Compass Group, which in the end could end up costing taxpayers more money. For example, if the population of inmates fall, the province must negotiate to make up for the company’s lost revenues. Compass Group may also increase their prices for a variety of reasons within the first year.
Inmates from Pine Grove Correctional Centre have been reaching out to SGEU asking for help. RankandFile.ca obtained two letters submitted to SGEU by inmates Kristen and Fran. Inserts have been included throughout this piece.
The inmates have expressed concerns over uncooked meat, medical conditions and food allergies being ignored, pregnant women not receiving proper nutrition, and inadequate portion sizes – comparable to that appropriate for a child.
A recent article in the Regina Leader-Post reports that after Compass Group took over food services, formal complaints at the Regina Correctional Centre rose to 20 in November, 45 in December – including 12 group complaints – and 35 in January, including 21 group complaints.
In contrast, when SGEU was delivering the food services, there were only four formal complaints from January to October of 2015.
While it might be easy to feel sympathy for workers who now find themselves out of work through no fault of their own, some do not feel sympathy for the inmates now having to eat questionable food.
Who are these inmates and should we care?
Jason Demers’ policy paper “Warehousing Prisoners in Saskatchewan” found that on any given day, 26-40 per cent of people in Saskatchewan’s provincial prisons are there on remand, meaning they have been charged but not tried or convicted of a crime. Of people charged in Canada, 65 per cent will be found guilty, 5 per cent will be acquitted, while the remaining 30 per cent will have the charges withdrawn or stayed.
Demers also found that Aboriginals are overrepresented in Saskatchewan prisons at 80-90 per cent. Furthermore, 92 per cent of our province’s inmates have substance abuse issues.
Demers notes that women in prison tend to have histories of physical or sexual abuse. They are most likely incarcerated for administration of justice violations, theft under $5000, or minor assault (Assault Level 1). In 46 per cent of women’s assault charges, their crimes have been committed against spouses or significant others, often a reaction to an abusive partner.
Women in the criminal justice system are often poor, formally uneducated, and again disproportionately Aboriginal. Women in prison can be pregnant.
With this privatization move, the work to feed the province’s inmates was taken away from public-sector employees and given to the large foreign-owned multinational corporation, Compass Group. Instead of having 62 well-trained, experienced and decently paid workers, we now have a group of low-paid workers and a CEO that in 2014 made $12 million after taxes.
Furthermore, Compass Group’s track record is horrendous. It does not inspire confidence with its many scandals. Compass Group contributed to possible exposure to listeria in seven Ontario prisons. Additionally, from 2003-2010 Compass Group overcharged New York schools’ school lunch programs, affecting 39 schools and school districts.
In April of 2015, Bertrand Olotara wrote how Compass Group underpayed employees in the US Senate’s kitchen. Although working 70 hours a week Olotara admits he relies on food stamps to feed his family.
Tragically, inadequate cleaning by Compass Group due to substandard worker training, shoddy cleaning practices, and understaffing at a BC hospital had fatal consequences when a an 11 month Clostridium difficile outbreak infected almost 100 people and caused at least five deaths.
These are just a few examples of Compass Group’s questionable history.
Finally, one must only look south of the border to see that privatization of services such as prison food does not necessarily mean a savings to taxpayers and can instead mean over-charging, inadequate nutrition and health risks, as documented by Simon Enoch in his piece, “The unappetizing record of prison food privatization.” When we see how privatization has failed in other regions we must question why our government wants to make this choice for our province.
Nutrition is a human right
Being in a provincial prison means that you will be out of prison and back in society in under two years. While no one would advocate that inmates receive lavish meals, it seems only sensible to ensure that meals are nutritionally sound.
A growing fetus in the womb of an incarcerated woman still needs adequate nutrients to grow and develop. Without these nutrients, development can become impaired and taxpayers can find themselves paying for these costs in education and healthcare far into the future.
Demers claims women often gain weight in prison due to the highly processed, high calorie, low-nutrient food they are fed. Nutritious meals do not have to be expensive –rice, oats, potatoes, carrots, apples and bananas are examples of inexpensive yet wholesome foods.
Instead of prepackaged, processed foods, couldn’t we be going back to basics and support local farmers? Diabetes, a disease that particularly affects Aboriginal peoples and can be caused by junk foods, is another concern worth consideration. We must consider the quality and quantity of the food being given to inmates and how that will impact costs to our public health care system.
This is just one instance of privatization by the current government. Yet, there remains a lot of unanswered questions, including, will there actually be cost savings for taxpayers? Will short-term savings just create long-term costs? Can we expect more privatization in the future?
One thing is certain though. 62 experienced and trained workers who were passionate about their jobs have been put out of work.