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Canada: MTC facility better or worse?

Report Newsmagazine - November 4, 2002
Cohen, Lynne
A private prison's PR problems

The recent non-fiction best-seller Con Game, by award-winning investigative reporter Michael Harris, chronicles the 20-- year decline of the Canadian corrections system. As recounted by Mr. Harris, the federal prison system has been corrupted by liberal, prisoner-centred ideology that has led to chaos within jails and a high likelihood convicts will re-offend once they are set free. Mr. Harris suggests that reforms to the Ontario provincial corrections system, launched this past decade by the province's Conservative government, should serve as a model for the federal system. But, as recent events show, nothing is perfect.

One of Ontario's most exceptional reforms involved the establishment of the province's first privately run jail, the Central North Correctional Centre, situated about 95 miles north of Toronto in Penetanguishene. The "super jail" is owned by U.S.-- based Management and Training Corporation-Canada.

Questions about the facility arose after a September 19 uprising of 100 prisoners who used a battering ram to try to escape. The "mini-riot" broke out one week after overnight staffing levels were reduced by 50%. The event ended peacefully early the next day, and with no injuries. Jail administrator Doug Thomson, who confirmed there had been several other incidents since the jail opened almost one year ago, played down the September escape attempt, calling it an "inmate disturbance."

But Dan Marshall, a former prison guard and now an organizing representative with the Ontario Public Service Employees' Union, maintains the jail is unsafe. "Part of the reason the riot occurred is that the jail is privately run," argues Mr. Marshall, who recently succeeded in organizing 187 Central North prison guards. "It's all about money. If the company hired another 10 or 15 staff, that would cost almost $40,000 a year each, which eats into the business' $35-million-a-year contract."

The union activist feels a public prison system is better "because the staff members are accountable to the taxpayer." He continues, "How often do you hear about problems coming out of the private system? Rarely, unless it's a major incident." But, as author Harris documents in Con Game, the same can also be said of the public corrections systems. In fact, he maintains the Correctional Services of Canada has a policy of downplaying or covering up disturbances.

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