Bill Reintroduced in Congress to Ensure Public Accountability, Transparency at Privately-Operated Prisons

Washington, DCOn Wednesday, U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) reintroduced the Private Prison Information Act (PPIA) in Congress. The bill, H.R. 2470, requires non-federal correctional and detention facilities that house federal prisoners to comply with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by making certain records available to the public.

The bill was introduced with 12 cosponsors, including Representative Steve Cohen (D-TN).

Currently, private companies such as Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group are not required to comply with FOIA requests even when they operate facilities that hold prisoners through contracts with federal agencies, and are paid with public taxpayer funds. This includes privately-operated facilities that house immigration detainees.

Alex Friedmann, associate director of the Human Rights Defense Center, and Christopher Petrella, a doctoral student at UC Berkeley, have worked closely with Rep. Jackson Lee’s staff to reintroduce the PPIA during the 114th Congress.

Various versions of the PPIA have been introduced since 2005; however, private prison firms and their supporters have lobbied against the bills. For example, CCA’s federal lobbying disclosure statements have specifically referenced lobbying related to the PPIA, and the Reason Foundation, which has received funding from CCA and other private prison firms, testified against an earlier version of the Private Prison Information Act.

Petrella and Friedmann argue that because private prison corporations rely almost entirely on taxpayer funds and perform the inherently governmental function of incarceration, the public has a right to obtain information pertaining to private prison operations. In short, the government should not be able to contract away the public’s right to know through FOIA requests.

Friedmann, who was incarcerated at a privately-operated prison in the 1990s, testified before the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security in June 2008 in support of a previous version of the Private Prison Information Act.

On March 11, 2015, a coalition of 55 criminal justice, civil rights and public interest organizations submitted a joint letter to Rep. Jackson Lee expressing support for the PPIA. The letter noted that “If private prison companies like CCA and GEO would like to continue to enjoy taxpayer-funded federal contracts, then they must be required to adhere to the same disclosure laws applicable to their public counterparts, including FOIA.”

The signatories to the joint letter included Detention Watch Network, In the Public Interest, the National Freedom of Information Coalition, Demos, National CURE, the Prison Policy Initiative, D.C. Prisoners’ Project, the New England First Amendment Coalition, the Legal Aid Societyand The Sentencing Project. The NAACP has also voiced support for the PPIA.

“This bill is about public accountability – to ensure that for-profit prison corporations, which assume the role of the government when incarcerating federal prisoners, must comply with the same Freedom of Information Act obligations as federal agencies such as the Bureau of Prisons and ICE,” said Friedmann. “That is only fair and reasonable, but private prison companies are expected to strongly object to the bill, as they favor secrecy over fairness.”

“The introduction of the Private Prison Information Act constitutes just the first step in bringing transparency and accountability to an industry that’s funded almost entirely by public tax dollars,” Petrella added.