From email@example.com Mon Sep 18 17:46:22 2000
Experiment in private prison, Penetanguishene. Enthusiasm for superjail fizzles on privatization bid
By Mirko Petricevic, Kitchener Waterloo Record, 13 September 2000
PENETANGUISHENE -- Living down the street from criminally insane prisoners doesn't worry Sharon Dion. In fact, when the province announced a few years ago that it would shut jails throughout Ontario and build two new superjails, the Penetanguishene shopowner wanted one of the 1,200-inmate jails in her hometown.
The cottage-country town, she figured, would reap a bonanza from 300 well-paid jobs and the $25 million the jail spends each year.
After all, her husband works as a nurse at the maximum-security Oak Ridge division of the Mental Health Centre Penetanguishene, where dangerous sexual offenders are treated.
But one election and a cabinet shuffle later, plans for the new jail -- and Dion's attitude about it -- have changed. After construction on the prison began, new Corrections Minister Rob Sampson told Penetanguishene residents that the mega-jail could be operated by a private company. By the end of October, Sampson plans to issue a call for proposals from pre-qualified companies interested in running the facility. The contract is to be signed in January, and the privately managed superjail could start receiving prisoners in April.
If Sampson and the Ontario Tories proceed with that plan, Penetanguishene's Central North Correctional Centre will become the first provincial jail for adults to be managed by a private company. After the announcement, residents' early enthusiasm for the new prison fizzled and turned into accusations of government flip-flop and betrayal. The outcry piqued Dion's curiosity. And when she and her friends began researching private prisons in the United States and elsewhere, they didn't like what they learned.
During the 14 months after the Corrections Corporation of America opened a medium-security prison in Youngstown, Ohio, in 1997, two inmates were murdered. In one incident, six inmates escaped during a midday break-out. In a prison managed by Wackenhut Corrections Corporation in New Mexico a year ago, prisoners killed a guard, stabbed another inmate and went on a four-hour rampage. In North Carolina, two privately run prisons opened in 1998 have been fined more than $1 million for being understaffed and not meeting performance standards. Two weeks from now, the state corrections department will take over management of the two institutions.
In New Zealand, the Labour government has scrapped plans for five private prisons. In Australia's Victoria state, the rate of suicide and self-harm in private prisons has put operators' contracts at risk, and the corrections minister has said he wants to take the "profit motive" out of running prisons. If a private company wins a contract to run the Penetanguishene mega-jail, a carbon-copy superjail in Lindsay will be run by the government, and both will have to meet strict performance standards, Sampson said.
But Dion doesn't like the province setting up the comparison. "We are an experiment," she said. "We cannot be used as guinea pigs."
THREE NEW BOOT CAMPS
In addition to Penetanguishene's superjail, Sampson is also looking for private companies to run prison industries and three new boot camps for young offenders and adults. Privately run prisons take many forms. In some cases, companies take over the management of jails that have been around for a hundred years. Sometimes they finance and build a new prison, then manage the inmates. And sometimes they build a jail, lease it to a government and let the public sector manage the prisoners. Private corporations in the United States can build jails cheaper than governments becausethey aren't restricted by public-sector purchasing laws. And because they usually don't have unionized staff, corporations say they can run jails for 10 to 20 per cent less money than the public sector.
For politicians faced with crumbling old jails and rising costs of holding increasing numbers of prisoners, privatization appears to be an appealing alternative. "Politicians want to say 'I'm gonna be tougher (on crime) than my opponent.' On the other hand, they have to be fiscally conservative," said Michael Gilbert, associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Texas, San Antonio. "Privatization allows them to in the same breath be tough on crime and fiscally conservative -- at least outwardly."
But what isn't clear is whether privately run prison actually cost less to run, or offer other benefits. A 1998 report to the U.S. Congress showed here were not enough reliable studies to determine whether private companies run comparable prisons cheaper than the state can. And a report by the U.S. General Accounting Office in 1996, which reviewed the results of four academic studies, also couldn't find a clear pattern of whether private was less expensive than public. But haggling over whether private companies save money masks a broader issue, said Gilbert. When the public service is replaced by private companies, he noted, governments also risk transferring their policy-making role to corporations.
"Legislators don't know jack about prisons. They ask the people who do know something about prisons. If you've privatized your entire prison system, then who do they call? They call the private administrators and ask them for their advice on public policy."
Private companies can run good facilities, Gilbert added. But he shudders to think of government policies which would double or triple the number of people in jail. "That's definitely in the interests of these organizations," he said. "But it's definitely not in the interest of the society as a whole."
AIM TO REDUCE RE-OFFENDING
Ontario Corrections Minister Rob Sampson says the main reason for opening the Penetanguishene superjail to private bids is not to cut costs -- it's to reduce re-offending so there are fewer Ontario residents victimized by crime. "We're doing this not to save money," Sampson said. "We're doing this to get better results
out of the money we're spending. If we can get recidivism rates down, it will have a tremendous impact on cost of the correction system and . . . the justice system in general."
Measuring the recidivism from a privately run jail and publicly run jail will show which system is more effective, Sampson said. However, the ministry isn't setting up studies to interpret the results, he confirmed. "I think there have been lots of academic studies on how to define recidivism and how one might measure it," he said. "The time to measure this by research and the time to study this is over. The time to do is now."
Even if Ontario tried to support its swing toward private prisons, though, it would be hard to find useful research. Paul Gendreau, director of the centre for criminal justice studies at the University of New Brunswick at Saint John, said, "There's virtually no evidence comparing the two kinds of systems when it comes to effective programming."
It shouldn't matter whether prisons are run by the public or private sector, he added. "The crucial issue is . . . the quality of people you hire or the quality of program you have." Counting the number of times inmates from Penetanguishene and Lindsay re-offend shouldn't be difficult, said Douglas McDonald, a sociologist from the policy research firm Abt Associates in Cambridge, Mass. The hard part will be to figure out if released inmates committed fewer crimes because of time served in either a private or public jail.
"Is it something that happened inside? Is it what happened to them after they left? Is there any association to being in that particular facility and getting stricter parole?" he asks.
To get valid data from the Ontario experiment, McDonald said, the Corrections Ministry will have to collect extensive data on inmates. It will also have to wait about three years because it takes that long to get the bugs worked out at a new jail. Then, it will take another two years for inmates to get sentenced, serve time, attend programs, get out of jail and either stay clean or re-offend. And if the province imposes penalties on private prison operators that are tied to inmate recidivism, "that may make the bid too risky for anybody," McDonald said.
Eight years after private companies started managing jails in England and Wales, the jury is still out on whether or not privatization has lowered re-offending rates. Michael Winders, spokesman for the UK Home Office, which is responsible for justicestatistics and prisons, said "no in-depth studies have been taken into this particular area as yet."
A new 800-inmate private jail opening next summer will include a group therapy treatment program. The private company will get a bonus if the treatment reduces recidivism, so "it's very important that we get the research right," said John Webster, another Home Office spokesman.
VIOLENCE AND FAILURES
Examples of violence and failures in private prisons throughout the world isn't deterring Sampson from looking for a private company to manage Penetanguishene's superjail. "I'm not interested in bringing up as a model the U.S. failures in private jails. I also don't want to bring up the failures they've had in public jails. "I'm interested in duplicating successes." For example,Altcourse prison in England, run by Group 4 Securitas, got a glowing report last year from the government prison inspector who noted the 600-inmate jail was the best "local prison" he had inspected.
But he also noted the installation of bunk beds in cells to accommodate extra prisoners had created numerous places from which inmates can hang themselves. And the prison hasn't escaped being docked more than $400,000 for performance defaults -- including assaults on staff and between inmates. But private prison operators' defaults in other countries won't be enough to disqualify them from bidding on the Penetanguishene's superjail.
The bidders' criteria calls for any company which lost a contract before its natural expiry date will have to give a "reasonable" explanation. "I need to know where their warts are and what they did to deal with them," Sampson said. In the UK, more than $2 million worth of fines for not meeting contract obligations for one private operator wasn't enough to bump it out of future competitions, said Home Office spokesman Webster.
GROUP FORMED IN JANUARY
After researching private corrections companies from her Penetanguishene home, 200 metres from the superjail's construction site, Dion and other residents formed the Citizens Against Private Prisons opposition group in January. In the spring, they organized an anti-private prison rally in the core of the quiet town and plan another rally next month. And, with $2,400 from the Ontario PublicService Employees Union, they sent anti-private prison flyers to homes in Sampson's Mississauga riding. Dion said she regrets supporting the effort to get a prison in her hometown.
After taxpayers have spent $80 million to build the superjail, Dion said she hates the thought of a private company taking profits out of Ontario. "I'm not worried (inmates) are going to be jumping over the fences or anything," she said.
But she does worry that inexperienced or lowly-paid staff could lead to more violence on correctional officers or inmates. "That could be Johnny down the street who is usually a good kid," Dion said. "He could be your son, he could be your father. You want them protected when they're in there."
Web sites related to the privatization of the correctional system in Ontario.
Ontario Ministry of Correctional Services:
Prison Privatisation Report International. A newsletter about worldwide
prison privatization issues by United Kingdom's Prison Reform Trust:
prisonact-list mailing list