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Prison Privatization: Canada Mulls Contracting Services To Companies Lobbying For Correctional Work

U.S. Private Prison Firms Lobby Ottawa .. And Ottawa's Listening

Faced with lawsuits and bad publicity in their home country, U.S. private prison corporations are lobbying to enter Canada -- and the Canadian government is considering allowing them, news reports indicate.

CSC officials last May urged Public Safety Minister Vic Toews to discuss Canada’s “interest in considering the privatization of penitentiary services on a limited basis,” according to a memo Bloomberg obtained under a freedom of information request.

The Guardian reports that among the companies lobbying Ottawa for a piece of the prison action is Geo Group, a Florida-based corporation whose lobbyist met with Toews last year.

The company is the target of a class-action lawsuit alleging that one of its youth facilities in Louisiana was plagued by sexual abuse. The suit alleges that guards engaged in sex with inmates -- who at that facility range in age from 13 to 22 -- and smuggled drugs into the prison. The facility allegedly denied health care and education services to inmates as well. A federal judge described the Geo Group prison as "a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts."

A Geo Group prison in Indiana was also the site of a full-scale riot in 2007.

The other prison company confirmed by The Guardian to be lobbying Ottawa is Management and Training Corporation (MTC), which has had its own share of controversies. Following the escape of two convicted murderers from a Kingman, Arizona MTC facility, the the state of Arizona found the facility’s alarms were not functioning properly, and the company hadn’t carried out maintenance on them in more than a year.

MTC’s marketing director, Mike Murphy, confirmed to the Guardian the company is interested in Canada.

"When the Conservative government came into play we saw some headlines that they may be looking at PPPs [private-public partnerships] and talking about doing some stuff with the private sector through their [corrections] infrastructure renewal," he told the Guardian.

With budgets under strain in recent years, many U.S. states have shelved plans for new prisons, cut the number of prisoners in custody, and even closed some facilities. That has prompted prison companies to look elsewhere for new expansion opportunities.

Some prison corporations have responded with more aggressive business strategies. Corrections Corporation of America, the U.S.’s largest private prison operator, recently sent a letter to 48 U.S. state governments offering to buy up their prisons -- in exchange for keeping them at least 90-per-cent full.

It’s this sort of tension between prison profits and the criminal justice system that has many critics of prison privatization worried. In a recent investigative report, the New Orleans Times-Picayune asserted that the profit motive in Louisiana’s prison system was behind its harsh criminal sentences, and contributed to the state apparently having the highest incarceration rate of any jurisdiction in the developed world.

Canada’s experience with private prisons so far has been limited and underwhelming. The country’s only existing private prison -- the Central North Correctional Centre in Penetanguishene, Ontario -- had been set up by the province’s Conservative government in the 1990s, and was taken over by the province under the Liberals in 2006. A performance review of the facility found that public prisons of the same size had better security, health care and recidivism rates than the MTC facility.

For its part, Geo Group built the Miramichi Youth Detention Facility in New Brunswick, but had its contract for the facility taken away in the 1990s after public protests against the incarceration of youth for profit. The company still has a maintenance contract for the prison.

The Conservative government in Ottawa has passed a slate of tough-on-crime laws since coming into power in 2006, the most notable being the omnibus crime bill that passed through Parliament in March of this year. Critics fear the mandatory minimum sentences in the new laws could increase the prison population and prompt the construction of new prisons.

But the federal government does not see it this way, and has taken steps to shut down some prisons, including historic Kingston Penitentiary.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said earlier this month that, so far, the prison population has not seen a spike as a result of the new laws. (However, it’s worth noting that the omnibus crime bill hasn’t been law long enough to make much of an impact on prison population statistics.)

“We have no appetite to pursue fully privatised prisons,” Julie Carmichael, a spokeswoman for Toews, told Bloomberg in an email. The government “has no intention of building new prisons, nor have we built a single new prison to date.”

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