B.C. shackled with private-prison experiment

B.C. shackled with private-prison experiment

More debate needed before province puts giant prison in the Okanagan

The Harper government's tough-on-crime agenda will result in more inmates. This means more prisons, even though Canada's crime rate has dropped 17 per cent in the last decade.

The Harper government’s tough-on-crime agenda will result in more inmates. This means more prisons, even though Canada’s crime rate has dropped 17 per cent in the last decade.

Photograph by: Joe Raedle, Getty Images, Edmonton Journal

Five years ago, Canada’s public safety minister Stockwell Day and the Conservative government embraced a tough-on-crime agenda and opened the door to private prisons.

It’s unlikely that Day’s Okanagan constituents ever anticipated the trouble that might bring to their bucolic valley known for its wine, weather and beaches even after he retired from politics.

Few could have anticipated that British Columbia’s biggest jail would be located in the southern part of their valley or the possibility that the 720-prisoner facility would be financed, owned and maintained by a publicly traded corporation.

Unsurprisingly, the Conservatives’ crime-fighting agenda will result in more inmates because of longer, mandatory minimum sentences and the elimination of two-for-one credit for time served before trial.

It means more prisons, even though Canada’s crime rate has dropped 17 per cent in the last decade.

Even though the Conservatives’ plan has yet to be fully legislated, penitentiary costs this year have soared to $2.98 billion from $1.6 billion in 2005-06 – an 87-per-cent increase.

And that’s only the federal government’s part of it.

Providing cells for the additional inmates that the Conservative crime policies will bring is B.C.’s $1.1-billion problem, according to a report released last year by parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page.

All of the federal crime legislation hasn’t even been passed and B.C. already has the worst double-bunking rates in the country.

One solution for cash-strapped B.C. is private prisons.

This week, it finalized its agreement with a consortium led by Brookfield Financial Corp. to finance, build and maintain the $90-million, 216-cell Surrey Remand Centre for 30 years.

The security aspects, including the guards, will continue to be the government’s responsibility.

Still, the government’s press release says Brookfield will “deliver numerous innovations in design and surveillance, providing a safer operating environment for staff and inmates.”

The company is a subsidiary of Brookfield Asset Management, which manages $150-billion worth of assets globally.

Meanwhile, citizens and politicians in the south Okanagan are wrestling with the spectre of the province’s biggest jail being plonked down in their community.

B.C. has asked for expressions of interest from communities in having the province’s biggest jail – a $200-million, 360-cell remand centre – located near them.

Penticton pulled out of the bidding for the jail after residents voted it down in a quasi-referendum on June 4, 302 votes to 2,143.

But that leaves Summerland, Lumby, the Penticton Indian band and the Osoyoos Indian band duking it out for what’s promised to be 566 construction jobs and 240 full-time jobs with a payroll of between $17 and $20 million annually.

But a jail with 720 inmates in your neighbourhood is odd form of economic development, especially when one of the main industries is tourism. With concerns about escapes and dangerous people being released on to the streets, a jail is an even more frightening prospect than a safe house or a detox facility, which are also chronically controversial.

So, it’s heightened the conflicting pro-and anti-development debate that was lively during the last municipal election just in time for this November’s vote.

Of course, layered over local concerns is the broader socioeconomic and political issue of whether construction, ownership and maintenance of jails ought to be contracted out.

Canada’s only experiment with a private prison ended badly in 2006 when the Ontario government took back the Central North Correctional Centre in Penetanguishene from Management and Training Corp.

While the private prison saved Ontario money, a study done by PricewaterhouseCoopers found that the province’s publicly run ones had better security, better prisoner health care and – perhaps more importantly – reduced repeat offender rates.

On all accounts, the American experience has been dismal. The Economist, a strong proponent of free markets and smaller government, noted in 2010: “If contractors can get away with providing less value for money than would the government-run alternative, they will.”

It goes on to say: “The great hazard of contracting out incarceration ‘services’ is that private firms may well turn out to be even more efficient and effective than unions in lobbying for policies that would increase prison populations.”

The Economist’s conclusion? It is “hard to see the expansion of a forprofit industry with a permanent interest in putting ever more people in cages as consistent with either efficiency or justice.”

There’s nothing anyone can do now about the 30-year contract for the Surrey Remand Centre, which is now signed and sealed. But before the B.C. government takes the next step of choosing a south Okanagan location for its largest jail, British Columbians and all Canadians need to have a more fundamental, factbased, socioeconomic debate about crime and punishment.

Do we really need longer sentences, more inmates, more jails and more prison guards?

If we do, then do we really want to have private companies financing, building and maintaining them?

Daphne Bramham is a columnist With the Vancouver Sun Postmedia News.

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