On May 1, 2020, the Texas Attorney General’s Office issued an opinion holding that all records related to a private prison contractor’s operations in the state were public information subject to the Texas Public Information Act (TPIA). The opinion bars an effort by the GEO Group to shield some of its Texas records from scrutiny by the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), the Florida-based nonprofit that publishes PLN and its sister publication, Criminal Legal News.
In January 2020, TPIA was amended with language to clarify that “public information” from a “government body” includes records from a “confinement facility operated under a contract with any division of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice” (Texas Government Code § 552.003(l)(A)(xii)).
HRDC filed its request February 6, 2020, seeking information on any payments totaling at least $1,000 that GEO Group had made since 2010 on claims or lawsuits related to its operation in the state, now totaling more than a dozen jails and prisons.
But GEO Group refused the to honor the request for records predating the 2020 TPIA amendment, arguing that before that time it was not considered a government body and so it did not have to comply with a TPIA request. The firm – the country’s largest private prison contractor, with nearly $2.5 billion in 2019 revenues – asked the attorney general’s office for its opinion on February 24, 2020.
In response, the attorney general’s opinion found that the information was public information within the meaning of the Act and GEO must release all parts of it not subject to an exception to disclosure under the Act.
“Private prisons have a long history of corruption and fraud, which is perpetuated by a lack of transparency,” said HRDC executive director Paul Wright. “Concealing the expenditure of taxpayer dollars deprives the public of knowledge about how well or poorly their tax money is being spent. The Attorney General’s office recognizes the importance of transparency around the private prison industry.”
Although the opinion contains language limiting it to the current information and situation, it tacitly holds that the amended definition covers documents made prior to the amendment of the Act, so the records of private prison companies are subject to disclosure under TPIA. This is a solid win for HRDC and prisoners held in Texas private prisons. See: Texas Attorney General’s letter opinion # OR2020-12334
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