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Canada: Expose' on MTC jail.
Super jail, super cheap
Prison for profit: 2nd riot rumoured as cost-cutting continues

Tom Blackwell
National Post
Saturday, January 11, 2003

Ont. - Standing on the upper level of his range at Ontario's super jail, inmate Gary Smith could hardly believe what he saw.

Below him, fellow prisoners who moments earlier had staged a sort of sit-in -- refusing to return to their cells for the night -- had suddenly turned violent.

With mattresses propped against the glass wall that faced the guard post, the convicts were systematically dismantling large chunks of the spanking-new high-tech jail.

This was last September, 10 months after the opening of Canada's first major experiment in privately run correctional institutions. Offenders had toppled the walls around their shower stalls and pried off 150-kilogram slabs of concrete.

Armed with their makeshift battering rams, they had broken through the doors linking six units in their "pod," and scores of criminals were soon stampeding free through the area.

"It was pandemonium," says Smith, who has been released after serving seven months on a series of minor charges, including fraud.

"All the plate [windows] were smashed out, all the fluorescent lights were smashed out, toilets knocked off walls, anything that could be smashed was smashed .... It was an experience I'll never forget."

Before the riot ended, 63 provincial police officers had surrounded the outside fence of the jail, ready for a mass breakout.

Smith says the prisoners never intended to escape. The melee erupted over increasing frustration with the jail's operators, a U.S. company called Management and Training Corp.

Inmates are, if nothing else, complainers. Their grievances about late meals, unpredictable rules and poor health care are not unusual. Clare Lewis, Ontario's ombudsman, says the number of complaints to his office from the jail is about what would be expected from a facility of its size.

Yet he admits the verdict is still out on the institution, and a picture is emerging in Penetanguishene of a different sort of jail -- where the financial bottom line is as important to managers as it is at General Motors or Tim Hortons.

And the reality of Canada's first privately run jail for adults in Canada is proving a hard sell, not just to inmates, but to many people in this community on the shores of Georgian Bay.

Sharon Dion, a local activist who fought against private ownership before the jail opened, says she is deluged with calls from staff and inmates anxious to relate their beefs about the place.

As the company strives to cut jail costs in half, it has left too few staff to manage the more than 1,000 inmates, critics say. Rules surrounding such routines as when cell doors are left open and on which days razors are dispensed are ill-defined and seem to change from shift to shift, making prisoner control more difficult. Meals are often delivered hours late, they say, and medical care can be slow and inadequate.

Nurses in the medical unit routinely consult doctors based in the United States, home of First Correctional Medical, the sub-contractor that delivers health care services.

Correctional officers, meanwhile, complain that under-staffing and a seemingly high turnover rate are forcing them to skip breaks and lunch and work excessive amounts of overtime, leading to stress, exhaustion and sickness.

"Most of the staff who came here wanted to work without a union and they wanted to work in a private environment," says one guard, who asked not to be named. "But I think a lot of that has turned around."

Indeed, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union won certification at the jail, a day before the riot, by a 70% vote.

Private jails have become fixtures in the United States and Britain, with mixed results. In Canada, other provinces are watching this project closely. But even Alberta's Conservative government, as sympathetic as any in this country toward privatization, appears less than convinced by Ontario's experiment.

A task force of Alberta MLAs toured the facility in July. The chairwoman, Mary Anne Jablonski, a Tory, thinks her province should keep monitoring the super jail, but believes it is too early to declare the project a success.

Eight months after it had opened, the jail still had few of the promised rehabilitation programs for the inmates, she says. The relationship between staff and offenders, partly a function of the super jail design, also struck the Alberta politicians.

"There was no contact between guards and prisoners," Jablonski says. "Here in Alberta we have contact between guards and prisoners and we feel that contributes to rehabilitation."

But in at least one area, the super jail has undoubtedly succeeded. As set out in its contract, MTC charges the province from about $80 to $94 a day per inmate, with the price dropping as the population rises. That's a huge savings compared to government-run jails in the province that cost taxpayers anywhere from $140 to $200, among the highest rates in Canada.

Doug Thompson, a former government administrator who runs the jail, insists the economies do not come from skimping on service, and that MTC, based in Centreville, Utah, is dedicated to providing extensive rehabilitation in an effort to turn offenders' lives around. A private-sector ethic has helped keep costs under control, he says.

"At the end of the day, we are funded a certain amount of money and if we don't manage that money, we're going to be in a loss situation," says Thompson.

"In a government-run operation -- that's where I spent the last 23 years -- those mechanisms for accountability weren't as clear.... If you're not worried about where the money's going to come from, you just don't pay the same attention."

Some staff may complain about the conditions, he says, but the turnover rate of 13% is lower than most workplaces, which suggests employees are by and large content.

Ontario decided to invite the private sector into adult corrections three years ago, after concluding the province's existing system was a mess. Incarceration costs were -- and still are -- sky high, thanks partly to a plethora of smaller, ageing jails. Absenteeism remains chronic. The average correctional officer takes as many as 21 sick days a year -- twice the civil service average.

Guards form the most militant branch of the public service union. During two strikes over the last six years, jails descended into near chaos.

With all that, high recidivism rates suggest that Ontario's Cadillac-priced institutions are not exactly turning out model citizens.

So the Tories committed $300-million to erect new, larger jails and close the smaller, old ones. The heart of the program is the Penetanguishene facility and an identical one in Lindsay, northeast of Toronto, which will open this February under traditional government management.

The two mirror-image prisons, each with room for about 1,200 inmates, will then go head to head over the next five years to see who can run a better jail.

The buildings are as high-concept as correctional facilities get, using technology and layout to allow the minimum number of guards to watch over the maximum number of inmates.

The most distinctive feature are the six pods -- satellites joined by indoor walkways to the main building. Each pod, capable of holding about 190 prisoners, is made up of six living units and a small exercise yard. Inmates eat, shower, sleep and spend most of their days there. Even visitors are brought to the pod, lessening the security risk of moving offenders through the facility.

At the centre of the satellite is a control room, or "bubble." With the glass walls around the units and a network of video cameras, the officers can theoretically see any space occupied by an inmate, day or night.

As Thompson led a tour through the jail recently, its spartan, cinder-block construction and plain concrete floors, devoid of any ornamentation, made for a bleak landscape.

On the edge of one of the pods, several orange-clad offenders in a computer room quietly tapped away at keyboards. Next door was a classroom.

Many inmates were still in their living units, leaning against the glass in their fluorescent-pumpkin suits and staring out, or sitting at the metal, fast-food-style tables and stools that are bolted to the floor.

They wear identification tags that note their racial background, a practice MTC follows in the United States, but that civil rights activists here have roundly condemned.

Thompson acknowledges inmates have had a hard time adjusting to what he calls "a new correctional environment in Ontario."

"They don't have the same freedoms they were used to seeing in some of the older facilities, such as recreational and sports fields. We have less direct supervision by staff."

It's hard to know how much of the super jail's environment stems from the province's new corrections philosophy, and how much from an administration that must deliver a profit.

One correctional officer says similar pods added recently to an existing jail in Guelph, Ont., are manned with a minimum of five guards. Penetanguishene's pods are staffed by four during the day and as few as two at night, with close to 200 prisoners to watch, insiders say.

Super jail staff were amazed on a visit to the Guelph facility at how calm and quiet it was in comparison to theirs, according to Dan Marshall, a union representative.

Thompson says he cannot comment on staffing levels for security reasons, but notes they have been approved by the province's Public Safety Ministry.

The medical unit also has too few employees for the workload it faces, says one former health-care worker. Its problems go further, though, in this staff member's view.

"I'm quite comfortable working with inmates and I treat them with the same respect I would anyone. That was a different mentality than I encountered at the jail," says the health-care provider. "It's an American medical company trying to run a Canadian jail."

Doctors are limited in the type of medications they can prescribe, with anything that might be considered addictive or pleasurable, including even sleeping pills, forbidden, says one insider.

At least one health professional quit in part because of concerns that practices in the unit could invite disciplinary action by the employee's professional body.

Thompson insists doctors who work there are free to make whatever treatment decisions they consider appropriate.

But he does acknowledge MTC's policy is to wean inmates off diazepine, a controversial sedative that is used to treat anxiety and other conditions and is often abused. The firm considers the policy crucial to getting the offenders on a more positive track in life. It would also slash drug costs.

Thompson also acknowledges nurses do sometimes consult with a First Correctional Medical doctor in Arizona, but says the physician they deal with is licensed to practice in Canada.
Lewis, the ombudsman, says he has heard about that practice and was taking a close look at the jail's medical services.

"I'm not suggesting scandal, [but] we're very much interested in whether inmates across the board are receiving the care that at least a public institution would give them," he says.

"We have some areas that we think require some compliance."

Inmates say the overworked medical staff can be neglectful, too.

When Ryan Skillen arrived at the super jail, close to 100 stitches were virtually all that held together his hand, severely damaged after he set off a homemade pipe bomb in a botched suicide attempt.
Skillen, 24, came with instructions from the surgeon that his dressing be changed every day. It was, however, six days before anyone bothered to apply a new bandage. By then, infection had set in.

He also complains the health-care unit cells had no beds -- just mats on the floor -- and no tables or chairs bolted to the floor, as do the regular cells. Skillen said a guard told him the setup was a deliberate attempt to discourage malingerers from feigning illness to get into cushier surroundings.

A doctor at the jail told Mike Abbott, charged with taking part in a wild bush-party fight, that he probably had a concussion. But no further action was taken. A month later, his mother, Debbie, was talking to him on the phone when he collapsed with a grand mal seizure, she says.

Only weeks later did he get a CAT scan, which gave him a clean bill of health.

Thompson says he has investigated every complaint and found no evidence of shoddy medical care.

Inmates do not seem convinced, and are now planning a jail-wide riot, secretly passing messages between pods while being escorted to other parts of the prison or using go-betweens on the outside, says one offender.

Guards are worried.

"We always live with the thought that it could happen again," says one, "and wonder what to expect next time."

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