US states are beginning to rely less on privately run prisons, but Canada may be a land of opportunity for the two biggest firms
By: BILBO POYNTER | The Guardian
US private prison firms are targeting Canada for fresh opportunities as pressure builds at home on the troubled multi-billion dollar industry from human rights groups and legal actions, and as more states look to scale back their reliance on them.
Two of the biggest operators in an industry once regarded as recession-proof, Geo Group and Management and Training Corporation (MTC), have been lobbying various government departments in the Canadian capital, Ottawa.
With a massive prison overhaul plan already underway – as well as the passage in March of Bill C-10, a suite of crime legislation that most observers agree will see more Canadians face prison time and keep those already locked up behind bars for longer – it seems the American industry’s interest in its neighbour to the north could not come at a better time.
The private industry’s lobbying of Canadian lawmakers has some Canadian prison watchers worried. “There is something unethical with having corporations seeking profits from locking people up,” wrote a group of former high-ranking Canadian justice officials to the Kingston Whig-Standard newspaper in March.
Mike Murphy, marketing director for the Utah-based MTC, confirmed the company’s interest in Canada. “When the conservative government came into play we saw some headlines that they may be looking at PPP’s [private-public partnerships] and talking about doing some stuff with the private sector through their [corrections] infrastructure renewal,” he said.
“If something does happen we’ll be interested both on the design, build, finance, as well if there’s any interest in private operations, which has been kind of controversial up in Canada versus the states, where it’s pretty predominant,” added Murphy.
While the Geo Group are second in the private prison business (after Corrections Corporation of America), with revenue of over $1bn in 2011, they have consistently been the subject of critical media reports due to a long line of legal actions against them for trouble and neglect at some of their facilities.
Perhaps the best known case of Geo’s troubles at home was a class action suit brought forward by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the ACLU on behalf of the inmates of the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility in Mississippi. The allegations spelled out in the lawsuit detail a culture of corruption and violence including staff setting up fights between inmates and betting on the outcome.
Sheila Bedi, the lead council for the current and former inmates in the class action, said Geo had a significant influence creating the need for the facility, “largely because of their priority of increasing their profits”.
The state of Mississippi and the plaintiffs reached an agreement in February that will ensure that young offenders under 17 will no longer be housed in the private prison. Geo has since announced that they will be shutting down all of their operations in the state by July.
In March the Arizona Journal reported that the NAACP and a Quaker group are asking that the state prevent Geo and Management and Training Corporation from bidding on new prison beds because of a raft of issues they say come with the private providers, including cost-effectiveness and safety issues.
Geo was also found guilty last July in the wrongful death of inmate Ronald Sites in their Lawton Correctional facility in Oklahoma. Another inmate was killed at the facility in April.
“I was engaged basically to give them an overview of what the situation was in Canada and where it might go,” said Patrick Gagnon, a managing partner with the influential Parliamentary Group and the registered lobbyist for the Geo Group in Canada. According to Gagnon his role was to highlight Geo’s operations in the UK and Australia in meetings with Canadian officials.
In an emailed response to the Guardian a Public Service Canada spokesperson confirmed that in 2011 Geo offered to set up a tour of the company’s Australian facilities but the offer was declined.
In January there was a riot and armed rooftop takeover of the Geo-run Fulham Correctional Centre near Sale, Australia, while in April staff at the facility were threatening to strike over pay and staffing issues.
Neither Geo nor Management and Training Corporation are strangers to Canada – nor to controversy here – as both companies have been connected to private prison projects in two provinces.
Management and Training Corporation was awarded the first-ever contract to operate a facility in Penetanguishene, Ontario, in the mid-1990s by the then-provincial conservative government. But the private contract was seen to be inefficient and beset with problems when compared to a nearby publically run facility. The contract wasn’t renewed when the current Liberal government came to power.
While Geo – then known as Wackenhut – never left, it was protested out of the operating side of the private youth prison business in New Brunswick. It still has a “maintenance-only” contract for the Miramichi Youth Detention Facility there – a facility Geo financed and built – which the province has leased back from the company since 1998 for $1.8m a year.
“Private prisons have been tried and failed in Ontario and New Brunswick, and that is not the direction that Canada should be going,” said Randall Garrison, the Public Safety Critic for the Official Opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) in Ottawa.
Adding to the speculation and handwringing about what the future of incarceration in Canada may look like was the surprise announcement in April by the public safety minister that the notorious 170-year-old Kingston Penitentiary would be closed, along with the multi-million-dollar mental health facility within its walls, and the Leclerc Institution in Laval, Quebec.
“We continue to ask: ‘What is your plan? How are you going to relocate the number of inmates that you’re talking about without the infrastructure?” said Jason Godin, a spokesperson for the Union of Correctional Officers. And while for Godin the government’s prison plans may not be clear he’s certain that safer communities won’t come from privatising prisons.
“You don’t hear any more [about Correctional Service of Canada's plans] until they’re putting the shovels in the ground,” said Justin Piché, an assistant professor at Memorial University and prison policy blogger.
Elizabeth Weir led the charge against Geo operating the youth prison in Mirimachi, New Brunswick, back in the 1990s while she was leader of the provincial New Democratic Party. For Weir it would not be wrong to ask if the federal conservative government’s correctional plans include services provided by the private prison industry, given “this government’s inclination”.
In an emailed reply to questions from the Guardian a spokesperson for the public safety minister wrote: “We have no appetite to pursue fully privatised prisons.”
“We shall see what the government position or policy framework might be. It’s still early days,” said Patrick Gagnon, the lobbyist for Geo Group in Ottawa. “Is there something that could perhaps be applied to Canada? That’s the big question.”