OTTAWA -- The Harper government has been quietly studying private prisons in other countries as a possible model to save money in federal penitentiaries, CTV News has learned.

The government hired the consulting firm Deloitte & Touche to examine prisons in seven countries aimed at building an “understanding of various models, approaches and experiences,” according the 1,400-page report obtained by CTV News under the Access to Information Act.

The massive report was kept secret from Canada’s Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers, who expressed concerns about for-profit prisons in Canada.

“This study came as a surprise. I wasn’t aware that they had commissioned this study,” Sapers said. “I’m always concerned when Corrections is treated just like another business. It’s hard to find profit in that kind of enterprise.”

Deloitte studied in detail 10 prisons in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Spain and Belgium -- providing an assessment and recommendation on each prison’s “relevancy to Canadian market” and their “relation to Correctional Services Canada.”

Some of those prisons in the Deloitte study were fully operated by private firms, while other institutions hired companies for basic services such as cleaning, laundry and food preparation services.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews acknowledged he discussed the idea of private prisons with his British counterpart in a meeting in May, but said he ended up ruling it out.

“Britain indicates . . . that there were benefits. I’ve examined that myself, but I don’t see there are sufficient benefits to change over an entire system,” Toews said.

“I didn’t feel there was any benefit to going toward a privatization model, that is the private supervision of prisoners,” he said. “We have no interest in going to a private model which would put the supervision of prisoners in private hands.”

But critics question why the government commissioned the reports, which were completed between October 2011 and this March.

“This raises the question: why would you do this kind of investigation if you don’t plan to implement private prisons in Canada?” said Liberal MP Geoff Reagan. “The government should clearly bring this forward for discussion and have an open debate in Canada, instead of doing this behind closed doors.”

NDP MP Paul Dewar said his party is against private prisons because the experience in other countries “has been a disaster.”

“The problem with privatizing prisons is it’s all about profits and not rehabilitation,” he said. “What we need to know is: what is the real agenda? The government -- are they going to privatize prisons or not?”

Toews did say he is open to limited private-sector involvement, adding that “there are private services being offered in prisons already.” He pointed out Canadian institutions already have private dental, medical and psychiatric services.

“We’re always looking at ways ensure that we can provide services at the best cost for the taxpayer,” he said.

The government is trying to cut spending, while imposing tougher sentences on criminals.

The Conservative government has passed a number of tough-on-crime laws since taking power in 2006, including a controversial omnibus crime bill in March.

Ottawa is spending about $600 million to build 2,700 new cells in the coming years. It is also closing two federal prisons -- the Kingston Penitentiary and the Leclerc Institution -- a move that the government says will save $120 million per year.

The Deloitte study comes as U.S. private prison firms have been lobbying a number of government departments in Ottawa for fresh opportunities.

Representatives from Florida-based GEO group met in August 2011 with Public Safety officials to promote the company’s services. The company even offered to set up a tour of its Australian facilities, but the offer was declined. Records also show that Toews was lobbied by a consultant representing GEO Group in October of that year.

United States, United Kingdom and Australia have already turned to the private companies to manage prison facilities. More than 200 institutions worldwide are operated privately, according to data from the Association of Private Correctional and Treatment Organizations.