Saskatchewan ponders privatizing prison food services

Matt Gardner
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The jobs of 29 Prince Albert workers may be at risk after the Saskatchewan government announced on Tuesday that it is considering the privatization of food services in provincial prisons.

The Prince Albert Provincial Correctional Centre, pictured here, is one of several facilities across the province whose employees may be affected after the Saskatchewan government announced on Tuesday that it is considering the privatization of food services in provincial prisons.

In total, 62 positions across Saskatchewan could be affected by such a move, which would include 24 permanent full-time and 38 permanent part-time employees.

The government this week issued a request for proposals (RFP) to vendors for contracting the delivery of food services outside the Corrections and Policing division of the Ministry of Justice.

“What’s happened here is we obviously had a consultant review our facilities in relation to food services,” Deputy Minister of Justice for Corrections and Policing Dale McFee said.

“Obviously it’s been determined that food services aren’t a core function of the Ministry, and that consultant has come back to us saying that there’s probably benefit in going forward in the next few weeks … to do a request for proposal, and there are some potential gains or aspects that we can deal with in the consistency of food services, the standardization related to the diet and how services are delivered.”

The government has argued that privatization and centralization could result in greater efficiency for the delivery of prison food services.  

“Certainly from an economic perspective, it could make sense,” McFee said, adding that the Ministry intends to gather all the relevant data and facts before making any decision on the matter.

“It’ll take some time and then if things are favourable and if there is a business decision that needs to be made, then we will take that forward to cabinet for that decision in the fall of 2014.”

He confirmed that the government is not limiting itself to vendors within Saskatchewan and would be open to contractors from outside the province.

Local institutions affected by the change would include the Prince Albert Provincial Correctional Centre and Pine Grove Correctional Centre, as well as the Prince Albert Youth Residence.

Others across the province would include the Regina and Saskatoon Provincial Correctional Centres and the Paul Dojack and Kilburn Hall Youth Centres.

The prospect of privatizing food delivery services drew swift condemnation from the Saskatchewan Government and General Employees Union (SGEU), which represents food services workers in provincial prisons.

The government has recently been meeting with staff members and union officials in order to discuss its plans.

“There’s not formal layoff notices,” SGEU president Bob Bymoen said. “But what they’ve been told is that it could very well lead to layoff notices -- which brings in lots of questions for us around the tendering process, around actual cost savings … and then there are a lot of security issues that go with this and safety issues that go with this as well.”

Bymoen attributed the move to the government’s plan, announced in 2010, to cut 15 per cent of its workforce within four years -- though McFee said the potential contracting out of food service delivery was unrelated.

The union president dismissed the government’s contention about the anticipated benefits of privatization.

“I’ll be surprised if they save a dime on this,” Bymoen said.

“Their comments about cost savings and efficiencies are smoke and mirrors … They’ve been talking that same line now for four years, and since they came into power the cost of running government has increased by 45 per cent,” he added.

Bymoen noted that the Ministry is still required to provide the same level of food services as well as safety and security for staff, inmates and the public.

He pointed out that provincial taxpayers often end up footing the bill for capital expenditures by private firms, even when the government has already paid for such expenditures and owns the equipment itself.

The Saskatchewan government, he argued, is not taking into account the time and money required to develop and oversee new contracts.

“Somebody has to develop this contract, tender it, review them, award them, pay them, regulate them, ensure compliance to the contract, re-tender in the future,” Bymoen said.

Now the government’s saying that the food services wasn’t part of their core business. That’s just more bureaucratic hogwash. Food services and feeding those inmates is probably one of the most central core businesses that the correctional centres do. They have a legal obligation under Canadian and international law to feed these inmates. Bob Bymoen

Aside from cooking meals at the prisons 365 days a year, food services workers also run programming for the inmates, with Bymoen referencing one apprenticeship program that taught inmates skills to make them more employable upon release.

“Now the government’s saying that the food services wasn’t part of their core business,” Bymoen said. “That’s just more bureaucratic hogwash.”

“Food services and feeding those inmates is probably one of the most central core businesses that the correctional centres do. They have a legal obligation under Canadian and international law to feed these inmates, and it’s some of the last programming that they have left inside the centres.”

McFee said that the government has been transparent throughout the process and has met with all employee groups.

Should the privatization plan go ahead, he added, the government would work within a collective agreement framework and follow the necessary process with labour representatives.

But Bymoen disputed McFee’s assessment of government transparency, arguing that the government had not sufficiently shared the details or costs of its contracts with the public.

He indicated that the SGEU would attempt to halt the move to privatization going forward.

“We’ll be hoping to convince the government to change their mind on this,” he said. “There’s no real savings, and why do they want to upset 60-some people within these communities and take away their livelihoods?”

He added, “I plead with the premier to show some of the compassion for his own staff that work for him as he shows for the compassion for the employees that work for the Potash Corporation that were laid off here a few weeks ago, when he was publicly challenging the Potash Corporation on those layoffs and asking them to be a better employer.

“I’m asking the premier to show some of that same compassion for his own employees.”

The potential privatization of food service delivery follows similar developments in Saskatchewan’s health system laundry, in which 3sHealth signed a contract with the Alberta-based firm K-Bro Linens Systems.

As the leader of a union local now facing 100 job losses at North Sask Laundry in Prince Albert, CUPE Local 3736 president Anita Labossiere was sympathetic to the plight of prison food delivery workers facing layoffs.

Speaking purely as a concerned citizen, she asked, “When will all this privatization stop -- when Saskatchewan is completely sold off?

“Local people are losing their jobs. It affects our economic growth, it affects hardworking citizens and their families, and that seems to be OK with this government. Why?”

Echoing Bymoen’s sentiments regarding Premier Brad Wall’s support to laid-off potash workers, Labossiere noted, “If they can send out a rapid response team to some workers, why not others?”

Suggesting that potential privatization likely came as much of a shock to food delivery workers as it did for laundry workers, she criticized the government’s approach to consulting with its employees.

“Why are they not talking to people and asking them if there’s any better way to do it before they just go ahead and privatize?” Labossiere asked.

“That was the case with us,” she added. “They said they would be in consultation with us and would discuss it with us, and it never happened.”

Labossiere characterized the move towards privatization in Saskatchewan as a worrying trend.

“They’re privatizing everything,” she said.

“We used to be the labour province. We used to be proud of that name, and before we know it, all of Saskatchewan is going to be sold off and owned by somebody else.”

Organizations: Prince Albert, SGEU, Corrections and Policing division Ministry of Justice Saskatchewan Government General Employees Union Potash

Geographic location: Saskatchewan

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Recent comments

  • Estelle
    March 29, 2014 - 14:34

    The ideological desire to privatize everything is going too far in Saskatchewan: I'm not sure how the government can believe that a private company will be able to provide the same level of food services in our jails while making a profit. Experiences in the US show that quality decreases significantly. If there is a profit to be made without changing quality, surely we can make that happen without privatization. I also fail to see where there would be cost savings. If we accept, for the sake of argument, that there would be cost savings, there are additional issues. As this article points out, the food services providers currently run programming helping to teach inmates life skills and to make them employable. I know that most people reading this will think "Who cares what happens to inmates?" and probably a lot of harsher things. But the reality is that food quality does after their health and their behaviour. And we're talking about provincial prisons, which means that every one of these people is back out in less than two years. These are the people that I, as a defence lawyer, spend every day with, and I assure you that as a society we want to do our best for them - what we want is for them to get out of jail and never come back. That's what the inmates want, and that's what we want. Whatever we can do to make that happen, which begins with providing proper food and continues with opportunities for career training, we should be doing. It's worth the cost for every person who doesn't come back.

  • Kim Sinclair
    March 26, 2014 - 19:33

    Food Services