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Lessons to be learned
Tories crack down on crime but where will they find the jails?

Is Canada about to create a for-profit private prison industry with little interest in inmate rehabilitation?

Ottawa (7 May 2006) - Now that the Harper Conservatives have tabled tough new laws to put more people in jail, the big questions to answer are, 'Where are they going to put them?'; 'How much will it cost?' and 'Is this the best approach to crime?'

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has not put a price tag on his crusade. However, it is obviously going to be steep, and experts are already questioning the wisdom of conducting such a crusade when crime rates are falling.

(While the murder rate rose somewhat in 2004 - from a 36-year low - crime as a whole declined by 1%, according to Statistics Canada.)

Despite this, the new Conservative budget calls for 1,000 extra RCMP officers to crack down on criminals and the Tory anti-crime legislation spells out a lengthy list of mandatory sentences to lock them away.

A set up for privatization?

Inevitably, this will lead to a big demand for new prison cells. It will also open the door to intense pressure from ideological Conservatives to meet the demand by privatization.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, who had a big hand in creating Canada's first privately-managed 'superjail' in Ontario, sidestepped these issues in his budget address last week, saying little of substance.

"We are setting aside funds to expand Canada’s correctional facilities to house the expected increase in inmates as a result of changes in sentencing rules," he told the Commons.

Conspicuously, he provided no cost estimate and gave ho hint as to how the facilities will be provided.

Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day suggested the number of additional prisoners could be limited to 300 or 400 inmates and the cost kept down to about $240 million over five years. But evidence available to date indicates that the actual figures will be far higher.

New mandatory sentences

It requires only a glance at all the new mandatory sentences planned by the Conservatives to see why: Sentences of two years or more must be served in federal institutions. Provincial jails handle inmates serving terms of less than two years.

Thus, private correctional firms are cueing up to cash in on what they hope will be a new federal correctional gravy train stretching far into the future. And why wouldn't they be optimistic?

American incarceration rates have quadrupled since the mid-1970s, largely because of mandatory sentencing and parole laws. More than two million Americans are now incarserated, roughly 40% of them in federal prisons. By comparison, the number of federal inmates in Canada totals just 12,000. Overall, the U.S. imprisons seven times the number of people per capita that Canada does.

Impact questioned

Critics fear the Conservatives will accomplish little but to jam already-crowded federal prisons to the bursting point.

"This is not going to make me and you any safer," says Anthony Doob, a University of Toronto criminology professor. "This has nothing to do with making our streets safer and everything to do with politics," he told the Toronto Globe and Mail.

After reviewing a wide body of literature on the impact of harsh sentences, Doob says no significant evidence exists to support the popular belief that mandatory sentences deter crime.

A new book analyzing the impact of private prisons (mainly in the U.S. because that is where most of them exist) says mandatory minimum sentences serve mainly to fuel a multi-billion-dollar private prison industry that has little interest in rehabilitation.

No motive to rehabilitation inmates

Byron E. Price, the author of Merchandizing Prisoners: Who Really Pays for Prison Privatization?, says for-profit correctional companies are primarily interested in warehousing prisoners, not preparing them to return to society. The more prisoners, the more money they make - which is why they love mandatory sentencing laws so much, the Rutgers University professor says.

There is also the issue of patronage (whether new prisons are public or private.)

The last time the Conservatives built a penitentiary in Canada, when Brian Mulroney was prime minister, it was located in Baie Comeau on the North Shore of the St. Lawrence River.

The remote location was bad for everyone (prisoners, families and correctional staff) but Mulroney didn't care. Baie Comeau was in his riding and that was enough to carry the day.

Ontario's 'superjail'

Meanwhile, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty recently struck a blow against prison privatization by announcing that the province will end a controversial experiment with a privately-managed 'superjail' at Penetanguishene.

The 1,184-inmate institution will be returned to public sector management when a five-year, $170 million contract, signed by the former Harris Conservatives with Management and Training Corp. (MTC) of Utah, expires later this year.

A provincial analysis of the contract found that private management savings were not enough to offset factors such as poorer health services for inmates and higher rates of recidivism. There were also security concerns, including an August 2002 riot in which 100 inmates nearly escaped using a battering ram.

Ontario compared MTC's operation of the Penetanguishene facility with that of the publicly-run Central East Correctional Centre in Kawartha Lakes, Ont., a jail nearly identical in design and inmate population.

Even the saving at Penetanguishene was misleading, the study found, because it was achieved via a contract (approved by the Harris government) that allowed MTC to operate the facility with 94 fewer people than the public provincial jail at Kawartha Lakes.

"The contract was flawed ... we had two-tier correctional delivery,'' Corrections Minister Monte Kwinter said. "We felt that the people of Ontario would be better served by bringing (Penetanguishene) back into the public service, where we can get the kind of outcomes that we as a government feel we should be getting."

There is a lesson in all of this for the Harper government. We have yet to see whether it is prepared to learn anything.

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