Saskatchewan Penitentiary, Saskatchewan, Canada
December 14, 2016
Portions of this article originally appeared on It’s Going Down
Between 131 and 200 prisoners refused to attend their normally-scheduled activities and instead masked up, destroyed surveillance cameras, erected barricades, set fires, destroyed significant portions of the prison and smashed a hole in the floor so they could move to different units. The Correctional Service Canada estimated the damages to the prison at approximately $3.5 million. Eight prisoners were shot with “shotgun pellets” by guards during the uprising, but all survived. One prisoner, Jason Leonard Bird, was stabbed to death during the riot. It was later reported that 85% of the prisoners involved in the uprising were Indigenous.
According to CFRC Prison Radio, the uprising at Saskatchewan Penitentiary was the result of a gradual escalation of tactics on the part of prisoners:
“At Canada’s most complained about prison, amidst a months-long dispute about food quality and portion sizes, things escalated from a grievance, to a kitchen strike, to a work strike, to a refusal to lockup, to a full-blown riot. Every step of the way the cold indifference and refusal to address concerns on the part of the prison bureaucracy aggravated the situation and made it clear ‘negotiations’ were going nowhere.”
One prisoner, quoted anonymously in the Annual Report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator (2017-18) stated:
“There’s some big guys in here – 180, 190, 200 pounds. I’m an average guy and I’m alwaysgoing hungry. It’s kind of like the last straw … the quality of the food, the quantity, the portion sizes – they were small and the dishes from the kitchen weren’t good. Food was a tension factor. We were fed like animals.”
Shortly after the uprising, CFRC Prison Radio interviewed Sherri, administrator of Beyond Prison Walls Canada and a prison wives support group on Facebook. Sherri had been following the protests as they developed and gave a run down of how things escalated:
“It started with the kitchen but I know that before they rioted they said ‘OK, well if things don’t change, we’re not going to work the kitchen, we’re not going to work the canteen, we’re not gonna do nothing.‘ So they were threatened, [CSC] said ‘If you guys don’t go to work … we’re going to take away your inmate social,’ which is just before Christmas, and they have Santa there and it’s good, they look forward to that. They were going to take that away from them, they were going to take their Christmas canteen, which they get extra stuff at Christmas time that they normally wouldn’t get. Actually they threatened to take all the canteen away from them. That’s where I guess the inmate committee and staff decided to have another meeting and nope, nothing changed again. And then they’d had enough of all their threats and that’s when the riot broke out. What started as a peaceful protest led to the riot because the guards came in with guns.”
The Office of the Correctional Investigator confirmed this analysis of how the protests escalated into a riot:
“Based on inmate testimonial, the show of presence on E3&4 ranges (upwards of 10 officers) at or around 1:20 pm on December 14 to enforce the Warden’s order for general population inmates to return to work or be locked up appears to have been the ‘spark’ that ignited the implicated ranges in riot. Although the Warden attempted to resume the institution to normal routine (up to that point CSC staff were helping to prepare and serve meals), inmates perceived this action as antagonistic and not as a means of mediation or conflict de-escalation.”
Sherri went on to describe the uprising, as told to her by prisoners involved:
“The inmates had made barricades, but the guards were cutting through them with tools like the jaws of life. They said the guards were shooting bullets at the floor, which would ricochet and hit inmates. They sprayed their gas guns, which ended up having guys pass out. They had inmates eventually lay in their cells with their hands behind their heads and their faces down to the ground, and then they put flashbangs, which are like a grenade, into the cells. On unit E3 and E4, there was a hole shot into the floor, and the inmates were getting shot at. The inmate I talked to said that one of his friends was shot in the leg so bad that it tore a piece of his back leg off. Another one got shot in the knee which wrecked his kneecap…During the riot, the guards smashed the inmates TVs and destroyed their clothes. I mean yeah, the inmates did break stuff. There was one unit where the toilets were busted, the sinks were broken. There was actually one unit – and I think it was from guards shooting at the floor – where you could actually see into the other units below. So inmates were jumping down through the floor into the next unit. One of the inmates was shot and hit with a guards billy stick so bad that they ended up breaking his forearm and a few fingers.”
In its Annual Report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator (2017-18), the Office released the following “chronology of key events” that occurred during the riot and its immediate lead up:
This abbreviated chronology is intended to orient readers in place and time to the key events leading up to the riot, which began at approximately 1:30 pm on December 14, 2016.Thursday December 8, 2016A list of numerous issues involving food services and inmate working conditions in the kitchen are delivered to Management.Friday December 9, 2016Inmate kitchen workers walk off the job in protest over scrambled egg portions served at the breakfast meal.Monday December 12, 2016A meeting is held between Management and more than 40 inmate kitchen workers to resolve the ongoing kitchen dispute. General population inmates are refusing to attend school, work or programs in solidarity with the kitchen workers’ protest. Later that day, the Warden has his own meeting with the same inmate representatives, who are instructed to come back with a more reasonable list of issues and demands.Tuesday December 13, 2016The Warden’s four key concessions to settle the kitchen protest and end the inmate strike are delivered to the inmate representatives.Wednesday December 14, 20169:00 am –Inmate representatives turn down the Warden’s concessions and raise new demands,including doubling of the meal protein allotment.1:00 pm –Work up is called.1:15 pm –Inmates on E1&2, E3&4, F1&2 and F4 ranges refuse to attend work and refuse to lock up.1:20 pm –A contingent of officers is assembled to show presence on E3&4 ranges in an attempt toenforce the Warden’s order for inmates to attend work and programs or lock up. A fewminutes after Officers withdraw from E3&4 ranges, inmates are seen donning balaclavasand masks and the range camera is painted over. Visual observation is lost. Similar eventstake place on other implicated ranges (E1&2, and F4).Riot begins at/around 1:30 pm.1:55 pm –Crisis Negotiators begin making contact with implicated Ranges.3:40 pm –The Deputy Warden reads theRiot Act Proclamationover the all-call system.4:15 pm –F1&F2 ranges peacefully lock up.4:35 pm –Emergency Response Team (Riot Squad) breach E3&4 range barriers and meet withserious resistance.7:25 pm –The last of the implicated ranges is secured and the institution is deemed secure.
“1 dead, at least 8 injured in Saskatchewan prison riot,” CBC Radio-Canada, December 15, 2016.
“One For The Books” – The Saskatchewan Pen Riot,” CFRC Prison Radio, January 12, 2017.
“The Rankest Riot: Saskatchewan Prison Uprising One Year Later“, Its Going Down, December 14, 2017.
“One for the Books: An Account of the 2016 Saskatchewan Penitentiary Riot” [zine], CFRC Prison Radio, May 2017.
“Board of Investigation into the Riot at Saskatchewan Penitentiary“, Correctional Service Canada, March 21, 2018.
“Union concerned about slow repairs following 2016 riot at Sask Pen“, PA Now, September 13, 2018.
“Prison watchdog issues scathing report into deadly riot at Saskatchewan Penitentiary,” Global News, October 31, 2018.
“Annual Report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator (2016-17),” The Correctional Investigator Canada, 2016-2017.
“Annual Report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator (2017-18),” The Correctional Investigator Canada, 2017-2018.
“Fifth person charged in death of Jason Leonard Bird, man found unresponsive following P.A. prison riot“, Saskatoon Star Phoenix, June 29, 2018.
“Ten years for man who fatally stabbed inmate during Saskatchewan Penitentiary riot“, Saskatoon Star Phoenix, June 17, 2019.
“Anatomy of a prison riot: Burning debris, ‘bounce shots’ and bloodshed inside Saskatchewan Penitentiary,” National Post, December 6, 2019.