by Steve Horn
The Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), the parent organization of Prison Legal News, has filed lawsuits in Texas and Vermont arguing that the GEO Group – one of the nation’s largest for-profit prison companies – is a de facto public agency that should be required to comply with public records requests.
Filed in the 225th Judicial District in Bexar County, the Texas case – Human Rights Defense Center v. The GEO Group, Case No. 2018CI16343 – resulted from a request submitted by HRDC that asked for records pertaining to complaints, claims, verdicts and settlements involving GEO facilities in that state.
However, nearly nine months after the request was filed, and after HRDC submitted a follow-up inquiry regarding the status of its request, GEO Group had not responded. Consequently, HRDC filed suit on August 27, 2018.
In its complaint, HRDC argued that GEO Group is a “[g]overnmental body” under Section 552.003(1)(A)(xii) of the Texas Government Code, and thus should fall under the purview of the Texas Public Information Act. That statute defines a “governmental body” as – among other things – “the part, section, or portion of an organization, corporation, commission, committee, institution, or agency that spends or that is supported in whole or in part by public funds.”
“GEO Corrections and Detention division is supported wholly by public funds. Without financial support from the [government], GEO Group would cease to exist,” HRDC argued. “GEO Group exists to carry out the fundamental government function of incarcerating individuals remanded to custody under legal authority. Without the underlying contract process and payment of public funds from the contracting agency, GEO Group could not detain and imprison people.”
The complaint seeks a ruling that GEO is subject to the Texas Public Information Act, while more broadly asking the court to declare the company a “governmental body.” HRDC is also seeking attorney fees and costs.
In May 2018, HRDC filed a similar lawsuit in Vermont, in the Civil Division of Superior Court, Washington Unit. The complaint in that case, Human Rights Defense Center v. GEO Group, Case No. 272-5-18Wncv, bluntly stated that “GEO stands in the shoes of the Department of Corrections.”
HRDC noted that in 2017 it had filed a request with GEO Group under the Vermont Access to Public Records Act, seeking documents related to payments in claims and lawsuits against the company or its employees over an eight-year period. Although GEO does not operate any facilities in Vermont, it previously held Vermont state prisoners at one of its prisons in Michigan. [See: PLN, May 2019, p.10; Jan. 2016, p.22].
“This case seeks to vindicate the public’s right to know what the government is doing, and to access records showing a private corporation’s performance of duties delegated to it by the state of Vermont,” HRDC stated in its complaint.
As in Texas, however, GEO Group never responded to the request, even though it should have because the company is the functional equivalent of a “public agency” under the letter of state law, HRDC argued.
“By failing to provide HRDC with copies of public records, GEO Group has contravened the Public Records Act,” HRDC said. In its complaint, HRDC asked for the company not only to produce the requested records but also to be designated a “public agency” by the court.
History Repeats Itself
The lawsuits in Texas and Vermont mirror other, successful cases previously filed in those same states by HRDC against another private prison firm.
In one of those suits, HRDC sought public records from Corrections Corporation of America, now known as CoreCivic, arguing the company was a de facto government agency and therefore must abide by Vermont’s public records law.
“By substituting for the Department of Corrections in housing and caring for Vermont prisoners, the defendant is a ‘public agency’ as that term is defined by Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 1, § 317(b),” HRDC stated in its complaint. As with GEO Group, CoreCivic was housing Vermont prisoners at an out-of-state facility at the time.
Under Vermont law, a “public agency” is defined as “any agency, board, department, commission, committee, branch, instrumentality, or authority of the State or any agency, board, committee, department, branch, instrumentality, commission, or authority of any political subdivision of the State.”
HRDCprevailed in its public records suit against CoreCivic in 2015, with the company settling the case and producing the requested records. [See: PLN, July 2013, p.42].
Additionally, HRDC filed a public records suit against CoreCivic in Texas that resulted in a March 2014 order by a state district court which found the company was a “governmental body” for purposes of the Texas Public Information Act, and therefore subject to that law’s “obligations to disclose public information.” [See: PLN, April 2014, p.35; June 2013, p.46].
HRDC has filed successful public records suits against private prison companies in Florida and Tennessee, too, under the functional equivalent doctrine.
Additional sources: vtdigger.org, statutes.capitol.tx.gov
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