The Harper government’s plans to reform Canada’s refugee system could end up being a back door for the privatization of prisons and detention centres, critics warn.
Changes to Canada’s refugee system, to go into effect on December 15, will likely increase the number of asylum seekers held in detention by the Canadian Border Services Agency.
The rules will give Immigration Minister Jason Kenney the power to designate a refugee or groups of refugees as “irregular arrivals,” in which case detention would be mandatory. The designation is expected to be applied mostly to refugees from European Union countries, particularly Roma refugee claimants from Eastern Europe.
Although the process for applying and accepting or rejecting refugees is being accelerated, it’s expected the number of refugee claimants held in detention will grow in the wake of the new rules.
According to a report at The Guardian, several private-sector operators of detention facilities are working to land contracts to operate Canada’s immigrant detention centres, some of which are undergoing expansion.
The Guardian names BD Hamilton and Associates, a relatively unknown Toronto real estate company, as having lobbied the Tories to "work with the Government of Canada to build a refugee detention centre in Toronto." Though Ottawa rejected the proposal, documents suggest the company continues to work for detention contracts.
"The proposal called for a [public-private partnership] arrangement that was to be financed by Hamilton and Associates and potentially other Canadian registered/incorporated investors," Emily Wehbi of National Public Relations, which represents BD Hamilton, told The Guardian.
The paper also reports that the company’s head, Bridget Hamilton, served as a director at Corbel Management Corporation until 2009. Corbel currently has a contract to manage the immigrant detention facility near Toronto’s airport. Though private sector involvement is very limited in Canada's prisons, contractors play a larger role at detention centres, where they have management and security contracts.
"The concern with having the government entering into contracts with private companies offering 'detention services" is accountability,” immigration lawyer David Niren told Yahoo! News Canada. “Detainees have rights under the law and the question is whether these private service providers will be held accountable when their client is the government.”
Speaking to The Guardian, University of Ottawa criminologist Justin Piche questioned whether the new refugee rules are “coming out of the need to detain people who are seeking refuge in Canada, or is that being driven by companies... who stand to profit tremendously [from] incarcerating people?"
Piche noted that Kenney has toured for-profit detention facilities in Australia.
"By planning, by touring these different facilities, by having meetings with these different companies, it suggests that perhaps they [the Harper government] don't expect this bill to deter anything, and what they're in fact doing is creating a useful crisis in the form of mandatory detention that will be resolved by privatized detention facilities," he said.
Critics of private detention centres point to the United States as a cautionary example of what can happen when private companies build an industry out of detaining would-be immigrants.
The U.S. has seen an enormous boom in the portion of detention facilities being run for profit, with nearly half of all detainee beds now in private hands, compared to around 10 per cent just a decade ago.
Over the past 10 years, the industry’s largest U.S. companies spent some $45 million on lobbying and campaign donations to ensure more business for themselves, the Associated Press reported. In that time, immigrant and refugee detention reached record highs.
Federal officials have admitted that privately run facilities don’t necessarily translate into lower bills for taxpayers, the AP added.
The Harper government has moved cautiously on the issue of prison privatization, officially denying that it plans to privatize federal facilities while at the same time meeting with lobbyists pushing for more private involvement in prisons.
According to a report at CTV earlier this fall, the federal government hired auditor Deloitte & Touche to study private prison models in seven foreign countries, to determine their “relevancy to [the] Canadian market.”
According to a report at Bloomberg, U.S. private prisons — faced with shrinking prison budgets and hits to their reputation at home — are lobbying for work in Canada. Federal documents showed the Correctional Service of Canada “may consider” contracting out some prison services.
The Guardian reported this past summer that two of the largest U.S. private prison operators — Geo Group and Management and Training Corp. (MTC) — are lobbying Ottawa for business, and representatives of Geo Group met with Public Safety Minister Vic Toews last year.
Both Geo Group and MTC have suffered bad publicity recently at some of their U.S. facilities. Geo Group is the target of a class-action lawsuit alleging that one of its youth facilities in Louisiana was plagued by sexual abuse. The suit alleges that guards engaged in sex with inmates -- who at that facility range in age from 13 to 22 -- and smuggled drugs into the prison. The facility allegedly denied health care and education services to inmates as well. A federal judge described the Geo Group prison as "a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts."
An MTC facility in Kingman, Arizona, was the site of an escape by two convicted murderers in 2010. In its investigation of the incident, the state of Arizona found the facility’s alarms were not functioning properly, and the company hadn’t carried out maintenance on them in more than a year.