Sunday, March 12, 2017

Seniors and prisoners, food, and the shortcomings of the principle of less eligibility

by Laura McKendy (PhD Candidate, Sociology, Carleton University) 

“The province spends less per day feeding seniors than it does feeding prisoners”, reads the byline in a recent article published in the Toronto Star.

This statement attempts to capture the social neglect of our senior population by comparing their treatment to that of prisoners who are positioned as less eligible or deserving of access to adequate food. The article also erroneously implies that prisoners have better food since their meals cost an extra dollar per day in comparison to seniors in Ontario's care. In fact, the food served in Ontario provincial jails and prisons is a far cry from what advocates might use as a benchmark for other institutionalized groups.

Recall that the 2014 report by the Community Advisory Board for the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre condemned meals served to prisoners as “soggy, spoiled or unpalatable”, to the point that “65-90% is uneaten”. In 2015, Matt Day of the Ottawa Sun published an article suggesting that the official menu at Ottawa’s jail didn’t seem that bad. Just weeks later, he conducted a taste test of jail fare and described the food as “barely palatable”.

For Ontario prisoners – many of whom have yet to see their day in court – the institutional diet takes its toll. One prisoner released from Ottawa’s jail explained, “I’ll put it this way, I went in and I was like 225 pounds, and I left, I was about 190”.

While prison food has a reputation for being unappetizing, the food crisis in Ontario penal institutions can be traced back to political shifts in the 1990s. As part of a wider restructuring of public services in Ontario, provincial jails and prisons underwent a ‘modernization’ process, coupled with a ‘no-frills’ transformation.

Before this, on-site kitchens not only provided work opportunities and structured activities for prisoners, but enabled the supply of fresh and nutritious food. As food services were privatized, however, many on-site kitchens were closed. In 2002, the Ontario government entered into a public-private partnership with Compass Group Canada to run a central food production centre at Maplehurst Correctional Centre in Milton, Ontario. Using a ‘cook-chill’ model, food is now mass-produced, shipped to provincial sites of confinement, reheated and served.

It is perhaps no surprise that the quality of meals declined when food became the responsibility of a for-profit company. However, privatization also failed to achieve the cost-savings and efficiency goals that were promised, according to the Office of the Auditor General of Ontario (see reports from 2000, 2002, 2008 and 2010).

Indeed, while private contracts are often seen as a cost-saving measure for taxpayers, an article by Global News showed that provinces using them were spending millions more to feed prisoners. When Saskatchewan was using a public system, they spent $2,312.50 per prisoner in the 2012-2013 year. In comparison, B.C. and Alberta, who have private systems, spent $3,200.00 (27.7% more), and $3,666.66 (36.9% more) respectively.

Of course, those advocating for the rights of seniors and other vulnerable groups in Ontario should be outraged at the incredible costs of incarceration. Taxpayers are paying around $200 a day for each prisoner behind bars in the province. Of the thousands of provincial prisoners in Ontario, most have been charged with a non-violent offence and over half are legally presumed innocent.

If Ontario reduced its reliance on incarceration it could mean millions of dollars more being put towards essential social services and programs in our communities, including for seniors. But using the incarcerated population and their 'frills' as a lens through which to assess the treatment of other vulnerable groups is harmful, fostering marginalization rather than social justice.

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