Private Prison Information Act Reintroduced in Congress with PLN’s Help
On December 10, 2014, U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) reintroduced the Private Prison Information Act (PPIA) in Congress. The bill, HR 5838, 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.
Currently, private prison companies such as Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group are not required to comply with FOIA requests even when they operate facilities that hold federal prisoners through contracts with federal agencies, and are paid with public funds. This includes privately-operated immigration detention centers.
PLN managing editor Alex Friedmann and Christopher Petrella, a doctoral student at UC Berkeley, have worked closely with Rep. Jackson Lee’s staff over the past two years to reintroduce the PPIA, and helped draft the legislation. [See: PLN, Feb. 2013, p.14].
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.
Friedmann and Petrella argue that because private prison companies 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.
Friedmann testified before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security in June 2008 in support of a previous version of the Private Prison Information Act. A representative from the Reason Foundation, which has received funding from private prison companies, testified against the bill.
A coalition of 34 criminal justice, civil rights and public interest organizations submitted a joint letter to Rep. Jackson Lee in December 2012, followed by a renewed letter on June 11, 2014, expressing support for the PPIA and encouraging her to reintroduce the bill.
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 the Center for Constitutional Rights, Center for Media Justice, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Florida Justice Institute, Grassroots Leadership, Enlace, In the Public Interest, National CURE and FedCURE, Justice Policy Institute, Justice Strategies, Prison Policy Initiative, Southern Center for Human Rights, The Sentencing Project, Southern Poverty Law Center and Texas Civil Rights Project. The NAACP has also voiced support for the PPIA, as has the California Correctional Peace Officers Association and Prof. Charles J. Ogletree, Jr. at Harvard Law School.
“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,” said Friedmann. “That is only fair and reasonable, but private prison companies will most likely 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 your and my tax dollars,” Petrella added.
HR 5838, which was referred to the Judiciary Committee, had seven co-sponsors. It will have to be refiled during the new Congressional session in 2015.
Sources: HRDC press release (Dec. 12, 2014); www.privateprisonfinformationactof2013.com
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