SASKATOON -- Inmates at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre say they’re not fighting their charges and are settling for federal sentences in order to escape the provincial correctional system.

Lee Haberstock said he pleaded guilty to his firearms charges so that he would be transferred to Saskatchewan Penitentiary near Prince Albert. The 35-year-old said he feels he has a better chance of successfully transitioning back into society from the penitentiary because of its programming.

“If you go to (the minimum security unit), they allow you to live in a house, buy your own food, just get ready for the streets, instead of just kicking you out,” he said.

Haberstock said he wants to change to be with his two teenage children and their mother.

“I’ve got a positive place to get out to and I’ve got community supports, so I’m looking forward to it — but you’ve got to change yourself.”

Haberstock said he was sentenced over a month ago, and still doesn’t know when he’ll be transferred to the penitentiary.

Correctional Service Canada (CSC) is responsible for inmates who are sentenced to a minimum of two years, according to its website.

It also says that the minimum security unit plays “a very important role in the process for returning offenders to the community.” The unit contains “houses” of groups of seven or eight inmates, where they organize their own schedules and meals. There’s also no barbed wire fence and officers are not armed.

Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Corrections, Policing and Public Safety says it offers numerous programs to support offenders. In a statement, the ministry referred to First Nations and Metis programs, access to elders and other religious leaders, mental health and addictions services and educational, literacy and employment programs. There’s also mental health training for all staff, reads the statement.

“Corrections develops a case-management plan that addresses the needs of each offender, specifically targeting issues that contribute to criminal behaviour. The case plan is put into action within the institution and may extend into the community,” said the ministry.

Blair Roberts, communications officer for the John Howard Society of Saskatchewan, said there’s a lack of re-integration programs available to provincial inmates on remand. Roughly 60 per cent of inmates in provincial institutions are on remand, he said, and often can’t access programs because they’re coming and going from the institution.

“The lack of programming has long been a concern in our institutions,” he said.

Roberts said he’s not surprised that inmates are taking that approach to access better programming: “It’s sadly not a shock.”

Roberts hosts the John Howard Society of Saskatchewan’s new podcast, called Know Justice. He interviewed Saskatoon Correctional Centre inmate Cory Cardinal for the most recent episode, who spoke about other inmates taking “penitentiary bits” to access better programming and protect themselves from COVID-19.

“They have nowhere to go. They were scared to get the COVID here, so the only way out was try to get to the Pen,” said Cardinal on the podcast.

Another Saskatoon inmate who took a “pen bit” is OJ Peekeekoot.

“I got arrested on a robbery charge and I had a trial date set for March. But then, because of the conditions here, I decided to enter a guilty plea,” he said.

Peekeekoot said he received a four-year sentence at the beginning of December because he felt that was “the only way to protect himself” from COVID-19.

Then, he ended up contracting the virus in mid-December while he was in the Saskatoon Correctional Centre, and is still waiting to be transferred to the penitentiary.