On April 27, 2006, the Ontario government announced the end of a bizarre venture. Canada's first large privately run prison, a 1,200-inmate maximum-security superjail in the cottage country north of Toronto, was a failure and would be taken over by the province.
The Penetanguishene-based Central North Correctional Centre was a striking attempt at getting in on the controversial private-prison craze that has swept the United States, where for-profit businesses now run approximately 150 prisons housing about 150,000 inmates. Ontario's five-year experiment with the concept, launched with much fanfare in 2001 by Robert Sampson–at the time the law-and-order Tory correctional services minister–ended amid revelations of flawed security, inadequate prisoner health care, and higher reoffending rates once the privately housed inmates were let back out into the world.
Today, Sampson has secured a gig with the Stephen Harper Conservatives leading a federal panel reviewing Canada's prison system. Its mandate includes finding "opportunities for savings including through physical plant realignment and infrastructure renewal".
Does the choice of Sampson mean the feds want to privatize Canadian prisons? Stockwell Day, the federal public safety minister, says no. "The question of privatization is not on the table," he told journalists after Sampson's appointment last April. But some critics aren't so sure. "We have to be very vigilant to see where this review is going and how broad it gets in terms of an agenda around privatization," NDP MP Libby Davies (Vancouver East) told a reporter.
Len Bush, national representative of 15,000 provincial prison guards in the National Union of Public and Government Employees, is also skeptical about Day's denial. "He's not actually come out and said, 'No, I won't privatize.' We would welcome him saying so. It looks to us that this is their direction, even though they're not in a situation where they feel they can say it publicly," he said on the phone from his Ottawa office.
Sampson submitted his report to the government on October 31, but it remains under wraps. In late October, though, news leaked from the Sampson panel suggesting that it was preparing to scrap statutory release, the virtually automatic discharge of prisoners under conditions similar to parole after they've served two-thirds of their sentences. Instead, "you'd have to show why you deserve to be released [at the two-thirds point]," a Canadian Press story quoted an unnamed source "familiar with the panel's report" as saying. "It'll put more people in [prison], so they're going to need more resources."
This has stoked the privatization fears: that the Harper government's law-and-order agenda could unleash a crisis of overcrowding in prisons, and guess what the magical solution will be? Private prisons. There is just one catch: crime experts say all this–dramatically increased prisoner numbers, possible privatization of prisons, and get-tough measures, including increased and mandatory sentences–will probably make Canadian communities less safe, not more.
At first glance, the plan may seem reasonable to some: make wrongdoers show they've changed. What could be wrong with that? It would force some to shape up, right? Wrong. Such a change would create instant havoc in already overcrowded provincial and federal prison systems by adding up to 30 or 40 percent more inmates virtually overnight, according to Neil Boyd, an SFU criminology professor who spoke to the Georgia Straight from his Bowen Island home.
The change in the statutory release rule could suddenly add another 2,200 prisoners to the federal corrections system, which currently houses 12,000 inmates–an increase of almost 20 percent, Anthony Doob, a criminology professor at the University of Toronto, estimated on the phone from his office. "The math is pretty straightforward. You could create a crisis almost overnight by changing parole practices."
Combined with other tough crime measures being proposed by the Harper government, a sudden tsunami of inmates would also swamp provincial prison systems, since many of those affected are those with sentences under two years. In B.C., provincial jails are already overcrowded and boiling with violence since the province closed nine facilities in 2001, said Dean Purdy, chair of the corrections and sheriff's-services component of the B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union, representing 2,000 provincial corrections officers and sheriffs. At the Vancouver Island Regional Correctional Centre, where Purdy works as a supervisor, there have been 39 assaults on guards since 2001, compared to five in the prior 15 years, he said. "I can't imagine what it will be like to run the jails with a higher count."
"It [the increase in inmates] will come as a rude surprise to the provinces," said Craig Jones, executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada, speaking on his cellphone from a conference in Toronto. "The feds will crack down on crime, but the provinces will be punished."
In October, Harper introduced his Tackling Violent Crime Act, Bill C-2, into the House of Commons, complete with a shopping list of ideas courtesy of the U.S. law-and-order lobby, including mandatory minimum sentences for certain offences and harsher penalties for gun crimes. Harper declared the bill a confidence motion and said he'd accept no amendments to it, meaning the government will fall should it be defeated by the opposition–unlikely, since the Liberals desperately want to avoid an election.
Criminologists and prison guards say the actual result of the Harper crime package will probably be not safer communities but, rather, private prisons in which the bottom line is king, not inmate rehabilitation.
With five to 10 years needed to build a new prison from conception to construction, coupled with Harper's ideological predisposition to outsourcing government programs, Jones said it's not a big leap to privatized prisons coming to Canada in a big way. "Our anxiety is they're going to grow the prison population so quickly, they will be left with few options."
Creating a crisis to push through a controversial change is straight out of the playbook of Mike Harris's Conservative government in Ontario when it privatized the Penetanguishene prison, NUPGE's Bush said. "The strategy of the Harris government was to create a crisis and bring privatization forward to deal with the crisis," he said. "You take an overcrowded situation, add more people, and you create a crisis. We were hoping the experience elsewhere would have taught them."
The U.S. experience with privatized prisons is full of cautionary tales. After federal and state authorities brought in tougher law-and-order crime laws (among them the infamous "three strikes" statutes)–like the mandatory minimum sentences now being proposed by Harper–in the 1980s and '90s, the American prison population quadrupled, from 500,000 in 1980 to 2.2 million today. (Another 4.8 million Americans are out on parole or probation, meaning a total of one in 32 adult Americans is under the control of the justice system in one fashion or another.)
It's a myth, however, that the explosion in inmate numbers was about getting violent, hardened criminals off the street. Instead, the crackdown disproportionately targeted marginalized people and small-time drug offenders. In 2003, racial or ethnic minorities made up 68 percent of the U.S. prison population, according to U.S. Justice Department data.
So who were these new offenders driving the U.S. prison boom? Turns out a huge number of them were POWs–prisoners of the war on drugs. Between 1990 and 2000, the portion of inmates jailed for a drug offence shot up by 59 percent while those in for violent crimes actually fell from 17 to 10 percent, according to Justice Department numbers. By 2004, drug offenders made up 54 percent of sentenced federal prisoners, up from just 25 percent in 1980. Of all drug arrests, about two in five were related to marijuana. Moreover, nine in 10 marijuana busts involve possession only, not sale or manufacturing.
Early on, the big question became what to do with all these new guests of the correctional system. The crime crackdown led to a boom in the number of U.S. federal and state prisons, from 592 in 1974 to 1,023 in 2000. In one Texas county, 33 percent of the population is behind bars, according to a 2004 study by the Washington, D.C.–based Urban Institute.
Authorities turned to private companies to build and run many prisons. The largest operator by far is the Nashville, Tennessee–based Corrections Corp. of America, with 65 facilities under management, including 40 it owns outright, that house 72,000 inmates. Business at CCA is booming. Since 2000, its shares have shot up from $4 to almost $29.
But an independent study of CCA in 2003 found the company had failed to: provide adequate medical care to inmates, control violence in its facilities, and prevent a rash of escapes. Civil-rights violations have also been raised in hundreds of lawsuits against CCA by prisoners and their families, including several that revolved around inmate deaths. The study, cowritten by the U.K.–based Prison Privatisation Report International and the U.S. community group Good Jobs First, also said CCA tried to keep down costs by paying staff poorly, which resulted in high turnover and mistreatment of prisoners. Substandard conditions also had resulted in prisoner protests and uprisings, while several CCA guards had been convicted of drug trafficking inside the facilities.
A low point for the company came in the late 1990s, when it agreed to a payment of $2.4 million to settle a class-action lawsuit filed by prisoners at its Youngstown, Ohio, prison who said the facility was unsafe after a rash of stabbings. "It's been a nightmare," Youngstown's mayor, George McKelvey–who helped lure CCA to his city–said in an October 1998 Washington Post story. "[CCA's] credibility is zero."
CCA officials didn't return calls for this story.
The plague of scandals at CCA and other private prison operators prompted Business Week to publish a story in 2000 titled "Private Prisons Don't Work" that said "the industry's heyday may already be history."
"It's horror story after horror story in the U.S.," Lyle Stewart, spokesman for the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, representing 6,000 federal prison guards, said from his office in Montreal. "It's frigging terrible."
In recent years, many American states have retreated from the incarceration-oriented approach, largely because corrections now eat up seven percent of state budgets, on average. In 2000, California voters passed a resolution eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes and requiring treatment, not prison time, for nonviolent drug offenders. In November, even the hard-line Bush administration eased minimum sentencing guidelines for federal crack offences.
But while U.S. authorities step back from the ailing crime policies of the 1980s and 1990s, the John Howard Society's Jones sees the Harper government embracing the same troubled approach. "This government seems enthralled by the Bush administration," he said, noting that Harper's crime policies "seem to reflect a close study of the American model".
Jones said the Harper crime agenda is likely to fall heaviest on marginalized people, just as the measures did in the U.S. "Police go where the pickings are easiest. It will fall disproportionately on marginalized, mentally ill, and minority youth. You will not see more Conrad Blacks in jail," he said. "It's not about justice; it's about acting Old Testament."
From Bowen Island, SFU's Boyd agreed. "Why would we want to dramatically increase the number of people in jail for cannabis? That's what it [mandatory sentencing] did in the U.S. Why would we want to look at them [the U.S.] when looking at crime?" he asked, noting that the U.S. has 2.5 times more murders per capita than Canada.
"There's just no support for the idea that punishment will get the social safety we want. We should be looking at success stories," Boyd said, pointing to European countries that have promoted crime prevention and improved social housing over incarceration.
In fact, that's exactly the approach that was favoured by a crime prevention council within Canada's Public Safety Ministry when it reviewed corrections policy back in 1996. The council's study, which is posted on the ministry's Web site, doesn't mince words in its criticism of U.S. mandatory minimum sentencing as a failed model that did little to reduce crime rates while merely increasing the prison population.
"Not only is the cost of automatic incarceration brought about by this policy inordinately high, but it does little to stem the ongoing tide of new offenders," noted the study, titled Money Well Spent: Investing in Preventing Crime. "Minimum mandatory sentencing requirements rely upon the false assumption that people who are contemplating a criminal act–youths in particular–go through a rational process of planning their act and weighing the consequences of being apprehended."
As for Harper's plan to tighten parole eligibility, U of T's Doob said the notion goes against everything that's known about the importance of transitioning prisoners into society through supervised programs like parole and halfway houses. "Probably the worst thing you could do is hold a guy his whole sentence and then give him a bus ticket with no job, no program, and no controls."
Jones is also flabbergasted. "The evidence is clear that incarceration is the last resort. Most people do not benefit from it and a number of people get worse. Prison is an expensive way to make bad people worse."
Jones also is alarmed about privatized prisons making a return. "The staff [in private prisons] has less training. They employ harsher measures because they're cheaper; the conditions deteriorate. The inmates eventually get out, so it passes on the costs of dealing with them to future governments and generations. The issue is they're going to be worse when they get out."
Doob agreed, saying the evidence on privatized prisons is clear: "The data that exists in various countries suggests there are real problems in the ways that private companies run these things." Any money saved in direct operational costs is offset by the added expense of monitoring prison companies for contract compliance, a greater rate of prisoner escapes, and a higher recidivism rate. "It would be an ideological decision [to privatize prisons], not a financial one," he said.
The BCGEU's Purdy said provincial corrections officials weren't impressed when they travelled to Ontario to investigate the Penetanguishene experiment a few years ago. "They came back and told us they weren't interested in privatizing any jails in B.C.," he said.
Whatever Harper has in mind for the prison system, one thing is for sure: There's little chance he'll unveil any plans for privatizing prisons before the next federal election. Unless Harper wins a majority, it seems suicidal for him to take a chance on such a controversial idea. He'd have his hands full with furious federal prison guards who "would fight it to the death if there was any sense at all" of privatization plans, vowed Stewart.
Already, other elements of Harper's crime agenda seem destined for a collision course with the provinces, which are likely to flip out when they're hit with massive numbers of new prisoners.
Harper apparently isn't even finding many allies within the Correctional Service of Canada, even though it is likely to enjoy a massive budget increase to accommodate the new inmates. Jones said senior corrections officials see Harper's regressive policies as reversing years of hard-won policy gains in areas like parole and crime prevention.
"When the tide turns so dramatically, they [corrections officials] see their work as being undone," he said. "It turns back the clock on 40 years of progressive corrections policy."