After rapid growth in the U.S. in the past few decades — and a brief experiment in Ontario — private prisons are facing a public backlash. Cost overruns, corruption, security lapses, and poor treatment of inmates are just some of the problems that plague privately run institutions.

The U.S. Justice Department announced in 2016 that it would phase out federal use of privately owned prisons, citing safety concerns. "They do not save substantially on costs and ... they do not maintain the same level of safety and security," explained U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates. This has driven U.S. for-profit corrections corporations to look for new markets, including Canada.

Canada’s experience

Canada’s foray into private prisons demonstrates the benefits of publicly run institutions. A private, for-profit jail in Penetanguishene, Ont., was returned to public control in 2006 after a performance evaluation found a nearly identical public jail in Lindsay had better security, prisoner health care, and reduced repeat offender rates.

New Brunswick also briefly experimented with privately run institutions: A contract with U.S.-based Geo Group for the operation of the Miramichi Youth Detention Facility was severed in the 1990s after widespread public protests against the incarceration of youth for profit.

Private prisons understaffed

In order to save on labour costs, for-profit prisons are often understaffed, which raises serious security concerns for correctional officers and inmates. Almost immediately after the private jail opened in Penetanguishene, concerns about understaffing raised red flags. The facility operated with approximately 90 fewer staff than the public facility in Lindsay. A confidential internal memo revealed there were too few staff to provide proper searches to ensure weapons and drugs were kept out of prisoners’ hands and to ensure the safety of correctional officers.

Safety concerns raised

The decision to return the for-profit jail in Penetanguishene to public control came largely out of safety concerns raised during an “apples-to-apples” comparison with the public facility in Lindsay. Monte Kwinter, the Ontario Community Safety Minister at the time, told the CBC: "We found that in basically every single area, the outcomes were better in the publicly run facilities." Among other findings, the report showed key differences at the public jail, including:

  • better staffing and higher levels of security;
  • better health care for inmates; and
  • a lower repeat offender rate.

Contracts drive up costs and incarceration

In a for-profit prison, prisoners are the commodity. In many U.S. for-profit prison contracts, private companies ensure consistent revenue streams by including occupancy guarantee clauses in the contracts, sometimes up to 100 per cent. This leaves the public on the hook for the bill whether or not a cell is occupied, and it increases pressure on law enforcement and the court system to keep prison capacity high. Residents in Colorado, for instance, have been forced to pay an additional $2 million due to occupancy requirements covering three for-profit prisons.

Publicly run jails, by comparison, aren’t on the hook to fill cells. When incarceration rates fall, that’s a good thing.

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