Day denies prison privatization plans but is he being honest?

Critics are skeptical Canada's public safety minister is being honest about plans to handle the rising prison population created by Tory law-and-order policies


Ottawa (29 April 2007) - Despite all signs to the contrary, Stockwell Day continues to deny that the Harper Conservatives are clearing the way for privately-run federal prisons in Canada.

The public safety minister says the appointment of Rob Sampson, a Harris-era Ontario cabinet minister, to head a review of the country's federal prison system, is not a signal that Canada is heading toward a multi-billion-dollar private prison industry similar to the United States.

"The question of privatization is not on the table," Mr. Day told reporters after announcing Sampson's appointment last week. The panel is to report by October.

Others carrying out the review with Sampson are:

  • Sharon Rosenfeldt, co-founder of a group called Victims of Violence;
  • Serge Gascon, a former Montreal police investigator;
  • Ian Glen, a former National Parole Board chairman; and,
  • Clarence Louie-Oliver, chief of the Osoyoos First Nation in British Columbia.

Day sounded straightforward in denying privatization but can he be believed? Critics are doubtful, suggesting he may merely be trying to deflect attention away from the issue until the Conservatives can win a majority.

Penetanguishene 'superjail' failure

Sampson played a key role in a failed prison privatization experiment undertaken by the Harris government. After five years of management by a Utah-based American correctional corporation, the Ontario 'superjail' at Penetanguishene was returned to public sector management by the McGuinty Liberals last year. High operating costs and poor performance were given as key reasons.

Day says he wants a "Canadian solution" - whatever that means - to federal prison problems, including a big increase in the prison population that the Tories appear certain to create as a result of a tougher approach to law-and-order.

Bloc Quebecois MP Real Menard is among Day's doubters. He believes Day has chosen his privatization words carefully and, while sounding as if he is opposed, has given himself ample wiggle room to choose any option he wants when the time comes.

"It isn't written in black and white that they don't want a study of privatization," says Menard. "It is written instead, in black and white, that (panel members) don't have the mandate. But they also have a mandate to study ways to save money. I would prefer the minister himself say that he, himself, doesn't want privatization in our prison."

NDP critic Libby Davies is also concerned. "I think it makes us believe that we have to be very vigilant to see where this review is going and how broad it gets in terms of an agenda around privatization," she said.

Billions required for prisons

What Day neglected to talk about when the panel was appointed is the billions in Canadian tax dollars that will have to be spent on new and expanded penitentiaries to accommodate new Tory mandatory sentencing laws. (All sentences of two years or more are served in federal institutions.)

Neil Boyd, a criminologist at Simon Fraser University, says Sampson's appointment is a clear sign of the government's intentions. Ideologically, the Harperites believe prisons should be farmed out to the private sector, Boyd believes.

In fact, it appears to be the only way the Tories can house the prison population explosion their polices will create without major public spending up front, he says. Yet if the U.S. experience is any guide, private prisons are no bargain for taxpayers in the long run.

Private operators get back all they spend, and more, including guaranteed annual profits paid for in perpetuity by the public treasury.

Worse, private prisons have no incentive to rehabilitate prisoners because they make the maximum profits when cell blocks are full. Private institutions also feature higher rates of recidivism, clashes among inmates and higher staff turnover.

The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) represents correctional employees in several provinces through Component unions. They include the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU/NUPGE), which played a major role in returning the superjail at Penetanguishene to public sector management. NUPGE

More information:Private prison operators waiting to cash in on Harper policies