Prison food problems persist, correctional investigator says

(Herald file photo)

More than two years since a deadly riot broke out in Saskatchewan Penitentiary amid tensions over food quality, Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) still hasn’t addressed concerns raised about food quality and adequacy, the Correctional Investigator found.

Food quality concerns led to two of the 16 recommendations investigator Ivan Zinger released as part of his annual report Tuesday.

Other recommendations addressed prevention of deaths in custody and a look at use-of-force policies, the much-maligned needle exchange program and workplace culture.

Zinger examined food-related concerns as part of his annual examination into conditions of confinement. He found that the food served in Canada’s federal prisons didn’t always live up to the expected quality or portion size by CSC’s own admission.

The agency conducted its own internal audit of food services, which it released to the investigator last February.

The audit found that prison food failed to meet Canada Food Guide requirements respecting nutritional content 21 per cent of the time.

The audit also found failure in demonstrating that menus were validated by a dietitian, a disconnect between the metric used of per diem food rations and the cost of producing means, inadequate oversight and inspection controls, inconsistent or substandard portion sizes and a failure to consistently follow special diet requirements.

“The totality of the audit’s findings are sufficient to bring into question the service’s capacity to meet its legal and policy obligations to ensure the inmate population is provided adequate and nutritional food,” Zinger wrote.

He added that ensuring people are following policy will not by itself address “the underlying problem of an industrial food production model that puts economies of scale and other purported efficiencies ahead of the nutritional, health and safety needs of the inmate population.”

He also took issue with the audit’s failure to document inmate concerns, examine cost savings of the food services modernization initiative (undertaken in 2014-15 and the source of much frustration since), consider how food quality relates to inmate health and well-being or consider how new food policy affects inmate employment.

“Food is so foundational to inmate health and well-being and has other impacts on the order and security of the institution,” Zinger said.

“My objective is to document and bring to public attention the ongoing risks of failing to provide adequate and sufficient quality and quantity of food.”

Zinger related many of the problems back to the implementation of the food modernization initiative. It replaced traditional scratch and on-demand cooking with industrial food production in a process known as “cook-chill.” While not used at Saskatchewan Penitentiary, Cook-Chill refers to a process where food is prepared off-site in large quantities, shipped to institutions and then warmed.

Zinger said his office has brought up food concerns to CSC before only to have them dismissed.

“Though now confirmed by audit findings, whenever prison food issues were negatively reported in the media or by my office, CSC invariably defended the integrity of its food services program, assuring that inmate meals and serving sizes were in accordance with Canada’s Food Guide,” he wrote.

“It has only latterly come to light that portion sizes and daily caloric intakes were based on standards for ‘low-active’ 19-50 year old males, median values that do not meet the needs of a younger, more active prison population.”

With current “significant” non-compliance to the national food guidelines, Zinger said it’s unclear how CSC intends to fix it, especially in an atmosphere described in the audit as poor morale and a “culture of resistance to change.”

The action plan, he said, provides little detail or assurances of a path forward.

While food quality complaints are consistently directed to his office, Zinger said complaints “spiked” in 2015-16. In his view, it’s because of the review of food services focused on cost first and quality and nutrition second.

“The downturn in prison food quality can be directly related to efforts to reduce CSC budgets and contain costs,” he wrote.

“As a number of studies and research have concluded, over the long run, serving wholesome and appetizing food in institutionalized settings is cheaper, healthier and safer.”

Zinger said this is also well-known within CSC. His own investigation into the Sask. Pen riot linked food shortages, poor meal quality and inadequate portion sizes to an organized prison protest and inmate strike that ended in violence.

CSC “belatedly” admitted that “food-related factors” played a role in the lead up to the incident, Zinger said. In that report, he called for an external audit and evaluation of food services.

At Sask. Pen, despite not having to use the cook-chill method, “staff admitted to how difficult it had become to adhere to standardized recipes and ingredient lists established at National Headquarters,” Zinger wrote, adding that the riot “should serve as a warning that inadequate or poor food quality can have unintended consequences.”

Zinger said several wardens he talked to said inmates are not getting enough nutritious food, and that several have taken outside measures to address issues with the cook-chill system and with the national menu.

An unintended side-effect of poor food conditions is the creation of a parallel economy, Zinger wrote.

“Food has gradually become another highly valued and dangerous commodity in the parallel or underground inmate economies,” Zinger wrote.

“ Muscling, bullying and extortion for food is a common and pervasive problem, especially at higher security institutions. Food as a safety issue is not considered (in the CSC audit).”

Zinger reiterated his recommendation that an external and independent review of CSC food services be conducted, including direct and meaningful consultation with the inmate population. He also recommended that food services should be overseen by the Health Services sector, which would allow for periodic audits of the nutritional content of meals and the liaising with experts from outside CSC.

“A hybrid model incorporating internal and external oversight of CSC food services would more fully recognize that inmate populations are at increased risk of chronic disease and that using food services to help control and prevent health problems, including dental health, is an efficient use of public resources,” he wrote.

In response, CSC said it is “currently addressing” the findings of its own audit and the concerns put forward by Zinger. It said that the national menu has been updated to line up with the new Canada Food Guide. As it moves forward, CSC said it will “consider” how an external review could help.

CSC also defended its food programs, which it said are led by “staff and managers with nutrition or professional culinary arts backgrounds and registered dietitians who work nationally and regionally.”

CSC said its team has expertise in food safety, recipe management, food production, food equipment and nutrition management, is ‘best suited” to oversee food services and works with chaplaincy, security, women offender and the Aboriginal Initiatives Directorate to meet offenders’ nutritional needs.