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British Columbia: On the slippery slope?
B.C. on the 'slippery slope' to prison privatization, NDP's MacPhail says

VANCOUVER (CP) - A private company will take over property management of British Columbia's prisons in two weeks, prompting the NDP opposition to charge the provincial government of starting down the "slippery slope" of U.S.-style privatizing of prisons.

B.C. Solicitor General Rich Coleman has categorically denied that will happen. As of April 1, Brookfield LePage Johnson Controls will take over property management services from the B.C. Building Corp., the real-estate wing of the provincial government. The contract, awarded last December, covers almost half of the B.C. government's real estate arm and includes 10 correctional facilities.

The management service will operate under the name Workspace Solutions Inc.

While the deal doesn't change who guards prisoners, former NDP leader Joy MacPhail believes the privatizing of building management could compromise overall security.

"I am curious to know whether this is the slippery slope of privatization of our prison system," MacPhail said. "This government is known for promoting ultra-conservative ideas from the United States."

MacPhail said the expansion of private prisons in the United States has produced neither greater security nor cost savings.

And, MacPhail said, employees, correctional officers and prisoners must be assured by Victoria that building operations will remain secure.

But Coleman has said privatization of prisons is not even being discussed in government circles.

"I have looked at the other jurisdictions that have had these experiments," he said in an earlier interview. "I haven't found anything that would lead me in any case whatsoever into looking into going in and privatizing prisons."

Coleman was unavailable for immediate comment Wednesday.

The Corrections Branch of the Ministry of Solicitor General operates 10 correctional centres throughout the province for those awaiting trial or serving a provincial custody sentence.

Kathleen Elliot, a spokeswoman for the B.C. Building Corp., said the contract covers general building maintenance such as "cleaning and changing lightbulbs" but also extends to specialized equipment in correctional facilities among others.

In the lockups, that equipment would include monitoring systems and alarms, she said.

Asked who would be responsible for prisoners if there were a system failure, Elliot confirmed it would be the provincial corrections branch.

"Absolutely," she said. "The service provider is only responsible for maintenance of the building. Things like escapes aren't generally due to systems errors.

"(BCBC) was very conscientious in its process for selecting. This is a firm with incredible expertise and knowledge. We expect everything to be very smooth and problem-free."

The contract provides for the transfer of some 300 BCBC property management employees. Their collective agreement through the B.C. Government Employees Union was also transferred to the company.

The union represents 2,100 people in the correctional and sheriffs services.

Union president George Heyman could not be contacted for comment, but a union spokesman said the union is not concerned about the contract change.

Among the operations affected by the change are lockups such as the Vancouver pre-trial centre which currently houses Ajaib Singh Bagri and Ripudaman Singh Malik, the men accused of killing 331 people in the 1985 Air India bombings.

Accused serial killer Robert William Pickton is housed at another provincial facility.

The provincial facilities provide a variety of services.

Men remanded into custody or sentenced to a term of two years less a day are jailed in provincial facilities.

An offender who receives a jail sentence of two years or more generally remains in a regional correctional centre for up to 15 days before transfer to a federal penitentiary.

Women who are remanded in custody or sentenced to a prison term are incarcerated in provincial facilities.

Bruce Kerr, a Brookfield vice-president, said prison directors will not allow his company to make changes at its own discretion.

"It's a tightly controlled environment," he said. "The types of cost savings we're looking at achieving are not at the risk of these critical facilities. We have to maintain existing service levels."

With the same staff working at facilities, Kerr said the level of expertise in management would not change.

BCBC's portfolio includes 2,133 owned properties, 901 leased properties and 645 properties where BCBC provides maintenance services.

It also holds 1,084 lease agreements with private sector landlords.

Brookfield LePage Johnson Controls values the deal at $90 million annually.

The Crown corporation expects to realize savings of up to $40 million per year.

MacPhail disputes that.

"That's not what's happened in the United States by any stretch," she said. "It doesn't in any way lead to greater security or cost savings."

The company has plans to open a 24-hour call centre in Kamloops later this month.

The company's website notes it has experience in managing so-called critical environments such as data centres, laboratories and research and development facilities.

Privatization within correctional facilities in Canada is not new.

In 2001, Ontario turned over control of its Maplehurst Correctional Facility super jail to the U.S. company Management Training Corp.

Private jails have turned into big business in the United States through other U.S. firms such as Corrections Corp. of America and Wackenhut Corrections Corp.

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