Damage from a major riot at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary is shown in a in December, 2016 handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Office of the Correctional Investigator

Prison watchdog slams investigation of deadly riot in Saskatchewan

The 2016 riot involved 185 prisoners and left one inmate dead, eight prisoners injured and a large part of the institution uninhabitable

The Correctional Service of Canada told the public a story about a deadly 2016 riot at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary that didn’t match the findings of its own investigation, which was itself “superficial, expedient and self-serving,” the federal watchdog on prisons reported Tuesday.

Correctional investigator Ivan Zinger wrote in his annual report that the prison service should not investigate itself in cases involving a riot, a death or a suicide in solitary confinement.

The violence at the Saskatchewan Penitentiary involved 185 prisoners and left one inmate dead, eight prisoners injured and a large part of the institution uninhabitable.

Jason Leonard Bird, who was serving a sentence of less than three years, was stabbed to death during the riot; five other inmates have been charged with murder. Most of the injured were hit by shotgun pellets when the prison authorities moved in. The riot did an estimated $3.6 million in damage.

Zinger said that while the prison service’s internal investigation concluded the riot was random, spontaneous and unforeseen, his office found that bad food, and not enough of it, were contributing factors to the riot, contradicting the prison service.

After the board concluded that the riot was unrelated to food, which was not supported by his office’s preliminary findings, he launched an investigation. The correctional service finally acknowledged that food was a factor in March, in a summary released publicly that still omitted other facts, Zinger said.

“CSC’S public account of these events, released in March of this year, is selective and misleading. It does not match the findings of its own internal investigation,” he said.

Zinger said his report on the riot raises serious concerns about the adequacy and the appropriateness of the correctional service investigating itself though its internal National Board of Investigation.

“When I first received the board’s report in late November last year, it raised a series of red flags. Its ‘random event’ theory was not credible and the rest of its findings struck me as superficial, expedient and self-serving,” Zinger told reporters in Ottawa on Tuesday.

The corrections ombudsman also takes issue with the fact that although 85 per cent of riot participants were Indigenous and 49 per cent of those who rioted were affiliated with gangs, neither factor was mentioned in either version of CSC’s report.

“My own review concluded that the riot and violence cannot be explained or understood without reference to the prevailing conditions of confinement and population management at Saskatchewan Penitentiary.”

He said those who rioted were housed in integrated living units, meaning different Indigenous gang members were living in close quarters, and few were in rehabilitation programs.

“Given these circumstances, and the fact that CSC does not have a co-ordinated national gang and gang-affiliation strategy, it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that the majority of these young Indigenous men who participated or incited riot were warehoused in a federal facility that offered little hope for early release, opportunity or opportunity for a better life,” he said. “The reality is that many of these men had little to lose.”

He said the internal board of investigation made no recommendation about Indigenous people in the prison system and had nothing to say about the influence of gangs in Canadian penitentiaries.

Anne Kelly, the correctional service’s commissioner, said it’s continuing to integrate the lessons learned from the Saskatchewan Penitentiary riot into its daily operations to ensure that similar situations can be prevented in the future.

“The riot’s impact on staff, offenders and others has not been forgotten, and we are using the results of the subsequent investigation to address the factors that resulted in this tragic incident.”

The Canadian Press

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