May 2, 2010

BC opens door to private jails


The BC government has taken the next step down the privatization road by opening the door to private prisons.  On April 28th Partnerships BC posted a request for qualification on the BC Bid web site for a public private partnership (P3) for the Surrey Pretrial Centre.

You need to register with Bid BC to see the actual documents but you can see a summary of the project in the Journal of Commerce. 

In the 2009 provincial election the pretrial centre was a contentious issue.  The province wanted to impose it in Burnaby against the wishes of local citizens.  It was one of the issues that cost Liberal MLA John Nuraney his job.  The project was subsequently moved to Surrey.

 The RFQ document shows this will be one of Partnerships BC’s Design/Build/Finance/Operate P3s.  The RFQ says:

It is anticipated that the Authority will make progress/milestone payments during construction (the amount, timing and terms and conditions of which will be set out in the RFP, but which are anticipated to be in the range of 40-50 per cent of Project capital costs). Project Co will be required to provide all other required funding for design, construction, finance costs and maintenance, by way of equity and/or debt financing.

The pretrial P3 doesn’t actually plan to put guns in the hands of the private prison operator.  Aside from helping to finance the jail the private operator will provide the following services:

i. General Management Services;

ii. Plant Services;

iii. Environmental Services;

iv. Grounds Maintenance and Landscaping Services;

v. Help Desk Services;

vi. Utility Management Services;

vii. Waste Management and Recycling Services; and

viii. Pest Control Services

BC is not the first jurisdiction in Canada to look at private prisons.  The Canadian and Ontario governments have looked at private facilities.  New Brunswick experimented with a privately operated prison before returning it to public management.  The United States has turned to private prisons to house their skyrocketing number of inmates.

There are many studies in the US looking at issues with private prisons.  Some of the issues involve low paid workers,  understaffing, staff turnover and mistreatment of prisoners.  Despite this, there is little evidence of savings. 

There is an increasing volume of evidence here in BC and in other provinces that P3s cost more than public delivery – see here, here, here and here.   But giving corporations powers over prisoners is a different matter, I would argue, much like giving churches power over residential schools.  Accountability is a serious issue with P3s and accountability is critical when we as a society take complete control of someone’s life.

When a private company finances a prison this gives them a say in its operation, even if their employees are limited to the gardeners and pest control staff.  And it opens the door to the American style of complete private management of prisons.

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