Swift response needed over penitentiary privatization

First published: September 04, 2008

The sudden uproar over the possible closing of Warkworth Penitentiary is a blatant effort to privatize the federal prison system, transforming it into an American-style enterprise with massive super-jails.

But what is more upsetting is the lack of local information from MP Rick Norlock, who was either completely in the dark or not forthcoming about these developments, which have been public realm since October 2007. Either way, local politicians should be taking him to the woodshed.

The most damning piece of evidence is a report from the Correctional Services of Canada Review Panel called A Roadmap for Strengthening Public Safety released on October 31, 2007. With its 109 recommendations, the plans around the future of Warkworth are laid out in some detail.

Under the heading, Physical Infrastructure, the report’s authors make a case for creating regional complexes for inmates. It argues the current system is inadequate to meet the modern needs of the prison system. Some prisons were built in the 1800s and early 1900s and are woefully lacking, according to the report.

Also, older prisons were designed under the assumption all inmates could function as a homogenous group. However, the number of inmate assaults has steadily risen to 556 in 2006-2007, compared to 540 in 2002-2003. Experts believe it is better to break down the population into subgroups, such as gangs, mentally ill, etc., and deliver specific rehabilitation programs to each one rather than single programs to all. This process is already underway, but limited.

Other consideration to improve efficiency and cost-effectiveness exist, including the fact that the regional complexes are considered more effective in eradicating drugs from entering jails. With a superjail, screening would be more intense and better searches would result in fewer drugs, the report argues.

The proposal suggests building three different prisons within one perimeter, a minimum, medium and maximum-security facility inside a single wall. The idea is to have common services between all three shared. Currently, inmates are moved between facilities for particular services when they are needed.

But, it is within an appendix where a separate report done by Deloitte & Touché spells out Warkworth’s fate. Under short-term goals, it identifies six existing institutions: Pittsburgh, Joyce Ville, Warkworth, the Regional Treatment Centre, Kingston Penitentiary and Millhaven. It states these prisons would need $640 million in investment to carry on as status quo.

However, the report proposes privatization.

“Given the government’s increasing interest in pursuing alternative delivery models including public-private partnerships (P3), and the stature that this project would have within the government’s planning priorities, it may be considered a viable candidate for an alternative model with greater private sector involvement,” the report states.

Norlock’s public response to the media is most revealing and disconcerting. He quickly states the obvious, saying the report is only a consultant’s recommendation and there is no intention to close any facility.

This is little consolation for the 320 people who work at the prison; nor, does it do much to relieve concerns about the massive loss of taxes, nearly $800,000 per year to Brighton and Northumberland County. Also, Campbellford benefits by providing water services.

Sadly, local politicians only found out about the plans when a Brighton resident who works at the prison brought it to the attention of Brighton Mayor Christine Herrington. As warden, she came county council last week, saying planning and approvals for a consolidated facility would be done within a five-year plan and the process is already underway. There is no confirmation about what stage the plans have achieved to date.

While Norlock is expected to appear before county and municipal councils in the near future, Cobourg Mayor Peter Delanty and Port Hope Mayor Linda Thompson are already going over Norlock’s head, seeking a meeting with Minister for Public Safety Stockwell Day.

But, that should not deter municipal leaders and taxpayers from taking Norlock to task. The recommendations from the report demanded public disclosure by the MP. If his staff was not on top of this, then heads should roll and people fired. There is no way such a substantial proposal with such devastating consequences should not be publicly disclosed.

Also, his attempts to minimize the impact are a serious miscalculation. As we have seen in the past, Norlock does not wield much power as a backbencher. And, we know Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a micromanager, who concentrates decision-making within his office and staff. It is easily conceivable Norlock will have little or no say in a final decision. And, if Herrington’s information is correction, that seems to be the current situation.

But, there is also a need for local municipal politicians to be held accountable. Certainly, we witnessed a great deal of bluster last week, but the key will be a sustained effort to get answers and make those public immediately.

Yes, it may be feasible to lobby to locate any new regional prison complex within Northumberland. And, it also could be good for the local economy. But, the question remains if residents would want a larger facility and the inherent concerns. There could be a strong NIMBY backlash that could hurt efforts. And, there will be plenty of competition from other municipalities to host such a facility. Time is wasting.

There is also the issue of privatization, which is being grossly ignored in any discussion. Major questions remain about the value of massive prisons in the United States and how viable that system would be in Canada. Northumberland County residents need to make their views known, as well as seek experts in the field. It is a public discussion that needs to take place before the first brick is laid.

Time has already been lost. The response must be swift and decisive, if Northumberland is not going to be profoundly hurt. But, politicians alone cannot do it. Public involvement is crucial, if there is to be success, regardless of the final outcome. Norlock’s credibility is in the tank on this one. It is up to residents to make sure he pays a price and they must remain vigilant to ensure community leaders follow through in the best interest of the public.

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