Coalition calls on Congress to enhance transparency and accountability for private prisons

Today, a coalition of organizations committed to government openness and accountability, civil liberties, human rights, and civil rights, is calling on Congress to support legislation demanding greater transparency from private prisons that contract with the federal government. The Private Prison Information Act of 2017 (S.1728) would strengthen accountability and oversight by requiring for-profit prisons under contract with federal agencies to comply with the same Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requirements as their government-operated counterparts.

Private prison companies that receive federal funding provide the same service as government agencies, but, by asserting their status as private entities, claim that they are not subject to public records laws such as the FOIA. Consequently, private prisons operate under a veil of secrecy; withholding from disclosure records that could help inform the public about the performance of these entities, such as incident reports and grievances, information on spending and misuse of federal funds, and communications between prison officials. This dynamic hinders the ability of the government and public to ensure private prison companies are living up to their contractual obligations and not wasting taxpayer dollars.

The Department of Justice Inspector General has found that federal prisons run by private companies are substantially less safe and secure than government-operated facilities, and that Bureau of Prisons (BOP) oversight of private prisons is often lacking. The heightened risks raise concerns given the growing reliance on privatized facilities. Approximately 18 percent of federal prisoners are held in private prison facilities, and an estimated sixty-five percent of all Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees are held in for-profit detention centers. The Justice Department’s decision to renew contracts with private companies as well as new guidelines instructing prosecutors to seek the tougher penalties for nonviolent crimes will dramatically increase the federal government’s reliance on the private prison industry.  

“For-profit prisons should be subject to the same public access and information laws with which federal prisons must comply,” according to Lisa Rosenberg, Executive Director of OpenTheGovernment. “The FOIA loophole for private prisons must be closed to ensure that corporations running private prisons are living up to their contractual obligations, that they are not wasting taxpayer dollars, and that they are as safe and secure as their federal counterparts.”

Read the letter here.

Additional Resources:

Private prisons lock out public’s right to know (USA Today op-ed by OTG Executive Director, Lisa Rosenberg)

Cardin Introduces Legislation to Hold Private Prisons Accountable (press release from Sen. Cardin)

Highest Court Rejects Private Prisons’ Petition to Limit Release of Government Documents (press release on Detention Watch Network/Center for Constitutional Rights FOIA case)