Brad Wall’s jail food zingers: good politics, bad Christianity

PROVINCE by Paul Dechene


Malcolm French shares a Christian perspective on Saskatchewan’s crappy jailhouse meals.

The reviews are in for Compass Group, the contractor recently hired by the province to provide food for Saskatchewan’s correctional facilities. And according to prisoners, Compass isn’t scoring so well. Media has widely reported on their complaints: being served raw eggs, improperly thawed meat and inadequate portions.

All of this has led to two protests by inmates so far. Even the staff at Regina Correctional Services admitted there have been serious problems with Compass’s food.

How did Premier Brad Wall respond to the concerns?

“If you really don’t like the prison food, there’s one way to avoid it, and that’s don’t go to prison,” he told the press on Jan 7.

Not exactly the kindest thing to come out of a provincial politician’s mouth. But many in the commentariat have brushed the comment aside.  “Oh, Brad’s not an awful human being,” they say. “He’s just talking to his ‘base’. There’s an election on this year. That makes him a savvy politician.”

Talking to his base, eh? Well, I could go out and talk with members of Prairie Dog’s base — find a few long-haired academics who’d argue forcefully that what Wall said was ethically and morally compromised, and not particularly constructive considering we have a prison system that’s over-crowded and stressed to the point of crisis.

But I highly doubt that’ll get me very far with the kinds of people Wall was addressing with his prison food quip. No, if I want to talk to “Wall’s base,” I’d better hit them with some Bible verses. Unfortunately, I don’t know any.

Good thing I spoke with Father Malcolm French from St James the Apostle Church. French knows his way around the Bible and, seeing as he’s in the business of thinking about moral and ethical issues, he has some opinions on Wall’s comment.

“For me, it comes down to Matthew 25,” says French. “There’s this parable that Jesus tells where He talks about the end times. And He says, ‘At the end the King comes and He separates them into the sheep and the goats. And He says to the sheep, Come ye blessed of my Father, come into the Kingdom that’s been prepared for you because when I was hungry, you gave me food, when I was thirsty you gave me drink, and when I was naked you clothed me and when I was a stranger you welcomed me and when I was sick — and when I was in prison! — you ministered to my needs.’

“And the sheep all go, ‘When did we do that?’ ‘In that you did it for the least of these, you did it for me,’” says French.

“And then for the goats, it’s the other way around,” says French.

“‘When you saw me hungry you didn’t feed me, and when you saw me thirsty you didn’t help me, and when you saw me in prison you didn’t minister to my needs. So you get to go to the lake of fire where there’s wailing and gnashing of teeth.’

“How we treat prisoners is a pretty significant thing, apparently,” concludes French.

But on the prison food question, which camp would French put Wall and his government into? The sheep or the goats?

“It would seem that they’ve fallen short of the standard of the sheep,” says French.

Too harsh? Maybe. Maybe Wall’s comment wasn’t a Freudian slip expressing his inner goat. Maybe it was an off-handed attempt at damage control.

It was, after all, his call to privatize food services within Saskatchewan’s correctional system in 2015. Any hiccup in the system will doubtless cut into the beefy savings his government promised would flow from the Compass contract.

Not a good thing in an election year.

And yet the thoughtlessness of his remark began to sound more like the cruelty born of comfortable white-dude privilege when, a week later, Canada’s prison ombudsperson Howard Sapers reported that as of 2015, for the first time in history, over one quarter of our federal prison population is of aboriginal ancestry — even though, nationally, aboriginal people only make up three per cent of the overall population.

Not helping Wall’s case, critics were also quick to point out his cavalier remark came in the shadow of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, which highlights some of the historical causes behind Sapers’ distressing prison population statistic.

And it’s not like the inequities some people face in our legal system should come as news to anyone who takes these things seriously. An independent review in 2013 by former Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci found that aboriginals face systemic racism in the Canadian justice system. And a later report by Jonathan Rudin of Aboriginal Legal Services of Toronto showed that aboriginal offenders have been more likely to wind up within the correctional system than non-aboriginals even though the crimes they commit are identical.

All together, it suggests there may be more at work than simple free will when it comes to whether or not you end up eating Compass’s mystery lunch special. Socio-economic factors and the colour of a person’s skin can influence whether or not an infraction will land you behind bars or free in the community.

Maybe some people don’t like it, but it’s a fact. Justice isn’t always distributed fairly.

As such, you’d think a provincial leader — especially one who got his start in politics working for a Conservative government that contributed eight cabinet ministers to Saskatchewan’s correctional system — might approach any question about the treatment of prisoners with more humility and more compassion.

And maybe a few less snotty, flippant one-liners.

Bad Attitudes

Hatred for people in prison is bad for them, and for society

Donna Lerat knows what it’s like to be a faceless statistic dealing with the stigmas around incarceration. Growing up in poverty, addictions, and chaos between Saskatoon and Prince Albert, Lerat had a relationship with the province’s justice system starting at Kilburn Hall and ending at the Pine Grove Correctional Centre.

Today Lerat  is a sexual health and inmate advocate. She says she lost her mind when she saw Wall on the news.

“He rolled his eyes when he said ‘prisoners,’” Lerat says, the frustration evident in her voice. “He’s just making it simple when it isn’t simple.”

From spending time and working with women behind bars, Lerat says she’s learned that Wall is overseeing continuous funding cuts to prison services like counselling — both psychological and spiritual — while at the same time the populations inside the prisons are growing.

“The programs work, [but inmates] need to be able to get access to those programs,” Lerat said. “Right now [at Pine Grove Correctional Centre] Alcoholics Anonymous is in only once a week. It should be more. Counselling, there are 100-and-some women. If you are going to up the number of women [in prison], then you need more counsellors.”

Investing in these programs reduces recidivism rates. Reducing the chances that someone will re-offend is the whole point of rehabilitation — it’s good for society as well as the person in jail.

So when it comes down to it, Lerat finds it discouraging that Wall’s comments are a reflection of society’s attitude.

Because in the end, the inmates will be out again and she would rather see them succeed.

Who wouldn’t? /Geraldine Malone