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Seamus Heffernan: We are feeding our prisoners gruel and using hunger as punishment
Hunger, violence, inequality and a new underground prison economy to supplement inadequate diets resulted from an attempt to cut prisoner costs by pennies
By Seamus Heffernan
It began as a cost-saving measure in Canadian prisons. In 2014, Correctional Services Canada rolled out the new Food Services Modernization Initiative (FSMI), commonly referred to as a process known as “cook-chill,” which promised to reduce the cost of feeding prisoners by pennies on the plate.
Replacing scratch and on-demand cooking at institutions, the cook-chill system prepares food in large vats, mixing ingredients which are then boiled together. The resulting liquid is poured into plastic bags and placed in tubs of hot water, whose temperature is gradually lowered before the bags are transferred to a freezer and stored for up to two weeks.
The result is food that has a near-puree texture, where the proteins and vegetables cannot be easily distinguished. Inundated with inmate complaints several years back, Dr. Ivan Zinger, Canada’s Corrections investigator and ombudsman, asked members of his team to get photographs of the offending food. The results led him to send an email with wording he regrets to this day: “Yuck.”
“It was perhaps not the most dignified response,” Zinger admits. “But it was the emotion that was raised in me.”
Critics contend that Canada’s prison food system continues to be in need of a major overhaul, as a controversial move to a centralized production system turned many meals into a re-heated, processed mush, contributing directly to undernourishment, violence, contamination and a cutthroat underground economy.
Zinger has been pushing for better prison food quality and transparency for years. Last year he wrote to CSC Commissioner Anne Kelly to raise concerns following an internal audit that he believes was both damning and lacking. The audit confirmed much of what he and his team had long been saying regarding food quality and quantity: It fails to meet Canada Food Guide requirements, the portions are inconsistent, and some sites did not ensure the safe preparation of meals. There is also the issue of waste, with one third of total production being thrown away.
“For us, it was an ‘I told you so’ reaction,” he acknowledges. “But the Service has to go a lot further than [their audit]. It has to look into whether this change was a big mistake that has compounded over the years.”
According to Zinger’s response to the audit, most wardens have learned that they have to supplement inmate food out of their own budgets to keep peace and order, as inmate unrest with food is considerable. While not a cook-chill institution, shortages and poor quality sparked a 2016 riot at Saskatchewan Penitentiary that left one inmate dead and eight others hospitalized.
However, Zinger argues that the new system is not just bad for food. It takes away the chance for inmates to learn kitchen skills that could help them find jobs upon release.
“It’s taken away opportunities to learn trades, employment opportunities and vocational training, and replaced it with a system that is so bad we saw inmates relying on canteen food to complement their diets,” he says.
Zinger says that canteen sales — previously for snack items such as chips and candy but now including food such as potatoes and sausages — has skyrocketed since the new system was introduced.
“It looks like a small [grocery store] now,” he says. “We’ve created this underground economy, where food becomes a sparse commodity. There’s bullying going on around canteen items and food in general. All these things should be looked at, as well as whether or not the so-called savings really occurred.”
Lee Chapelle, head of Canadian Prisons Consulting and a former inmate himself, echoes Zinger’s concerns as regards health and the underground food economy prisoners have now created. Unfortunately, he doesn’t see the issue topping any politician’s policy concerns anytime soon.
“I have come to believe that not only is there no political will in this matter, but no political interest,” he says. "The approach and ideology that is effective in messaging platforms is ‘tough on crime.’ That goes back to Richard Nixon. It wins elections.”
In 2018, Lee was invited by MP Adam Vaughan to address the Liberal caucus about prisoner issues, but the only member who showed was Vaughan himself. Lee believes that the political will to enact real change here is lacking, as politicians are reluctant to be seen as fighting for convicts.
“When we think of the changes that took place under (former prime minister Stephen) Harper, most people with backgrounds in criminology or sociology would agree we took steps backwards,” he argues. “A purely punitive approach doesn’t work. The Liberals came into power in 2015 they inherited a culture that won’t change overnight, no matter how much they want to change it … The Liberal Party has been shy to do anything, thanks to the ‘hug a thug’ tag or other labels that have been laid on them.”
Lee’s business works to prepare inmates for what prison will be like before they enter. He says that many of his clients have both health and economic issues that are exacerbated by the food.
“In order to have a healthy diet they must dip into your canteen spending,” he says. “Their health has been impacted through diet and menu, and typically my clients have pre-existing conditions. Their needs aren’t being met through the menu itself, so they spend their own money to do it.”
That can be tricky for those lacking financial support from friends or family on the outside. Inmates can expect to earn between $5.25 and $6.90 per day, with most earning at the low end of the scale. But deductions can reach as much as 30 per cent for room, board and phone fees, on top of other deductions.
“It’s no different than in poverty-stricken areas in our communities,” he says. “Essentially, you’ve created a form of barter and bullying, where food becomes a commodity. In prison, you’re top-tier if you have money and support from the outside. What happens is the weak get weaker, ultimately. It’s pretty brutal.”
Jen Metcalfe, executive director of Prisoners' Legal Services, points out that the new food system can be punitive in other ways. Administrative segregation, more commonly referred to as solitary confinement, has been ruled unconstitutional in Canada. As a result, the Corrections and Conditional Release Act (CCRA) has been changed, leading corrections officers to find alternate methods of inmate discipline.
“Now that they’ve removed solitary confinement, they’re using access to canteen and fines as punishment,” she says. “Prisoners make such a tiny amount of money to begin with, and they need the canteen to supplement their diet. It sounds like we’re moving forwards with prisoners’ human rights by saying it’s not ethical to torture people for minor internal breaches of rules, but we’re actually still starving people, which is unethical and a violation of their basic rights.”
On the topic of rights, Metcalfe’s team has also been alerted to potential tampering of food and inmate’s religious diets not being adequately addressed.
“We have had a few complaints from Jewish prisoners not receiving Kosher items and meals on par with what is served to others,” she says. “We have had complaints that Kosher meals arrive with broken trays during transit (they are prepackaged and brought from a supplier), and some complaints that Kosher meals are past their expiry dates. In the past we also had complaints that halal meals had cross contamination during preparation.”
The man responsible for overseeing the prison food system is Ghislain Sauvé, Director General, Technical Services & Facilities with CSC. He argues that the top goal for the new system is streamlining how his department meets the obligation to feed Canada’s approximately 14,000 federal inmates. He also says that the audit’s top recommendations, including better staff training and improved information tracking, have been implemented.
“It’s about efficiency, ensuring and being able to monitor all the stages of food preparation,” he says. “By going national, we are ensuring a national consistency. One of the measures we use is the Canada Food Guide, to make sure we are providing nutritional food, and we now have a system that ensures we do that consistently across the country.”
However, when asked about the financial implication of the move, Sauvé acknowledges that cost-savings was part of the original motivation as well.
“It was part of the deficit-reduction plan. I certainly won’t hide that was a component, but I hasten to add that it no way detracts from our obligation to our offender population. But obviously we also have an obligation to Canadians in that what we do, we do as efficiently and effectively as possible. The dollar goes as far as it can.”
The move cut the daily cost of feeding a federal prisoner to $5.41 and delivers 2,600 calories per day, appropriate for an inactive male aged 31-50. However, critics have long contended that the current food system neither saves money or meets the new Canada Food Guide’s standards. Sauvé, however, is adamant they are wrong.
“We invested a fair amount to set this up, in terms of building the new facilities, in terms of equipping it properly. Are there savings in terms of reduced ongoing operating costs? Yes. And now we’re having lower operating costs to deliver what we think is as good or better than what we had before. Do you get a return right away? No. Will we get it over time? We believe so, but time will tell.”
Ghislaine further argues that CSC takes their professionalism and pride very seriously in meeting the national standard for nutrition.
“We go through a lot of steps in developing a national menu,” he says. “We have dieticians on staff, and we have a national coordinator here in Ottawa. They are instrumental in going through the menu and ensuring that nutritional expectations are being met. When we put a tray in front of an offender, everything on there ensures they will have a nutritious meal. I or anyone else on my team can’t make somebody eat it.”
Seamus Heffernan is an author. He lives in British Columbia and ran for the federal Liberals in the 2019 election.
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