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Sen. Warren Investigation Exposes Broken Prison Accreditation System

The results of this investigation were published by Sen. Warren’s office in December 2020. It revealed ACA operations to be riddled with conflicts of interest and ineffective at ensuring prisons met the minimum requirements necessary to create a safe and humane environment.

The ACA’s primary purpose is to provide accreditation of prisons, jails, and detention centers at the federal, state, and local level. On their website, the ACA states that the goal of accreditation is to “improve facility operations through adherence to clear standards relevant to all areas/operations of the facility, including safety, security, order, inmate care, programs, justice, and administration.” Through 2020, ACA had accredited more than 1,500 facilities in 49 states.

The accreditation process is a big source of revenue. From 2014-2018, the period of the investigation, ACA received $1.9 million from the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) for accreditation of government-run facilities, while in the same time span, the state prison systems of Texas and Florida paid $1.75 million and $900,000, respectively. All told, ACA received $21.9 million in accreditation revenue over these four years, or nearly half the $48 million the company earned during those years.

Government operated facilities are not the only ones paying for accreditation. CoreCivic, GEO Group (GEO), and Management and Training Corporation (MTC) collectively control close to 75% of the private prison industry and generate over $4 billion in annual revenue through the ownership or management of more than 230 facilities worldwide. The BOP requires ACA accreditation for the 14 facilities focusing over 22,000 people that it contracts to private companies. All are operated by the three companies above. Each facility costs roughly $15,000 to accredit. ACA earned $2.79 million over four years from these three private companies.

Why would these companies pay for ACA accreditation? The BOP and all 50 states require accreditation in their private prison contracting process. Equally important, ACA provides both private companies and government agencies a shield of legitimacy. If a prison faces civil rights litigation over inhumane conditions, ACA officials will provide testimony on their behalf. When prison conditions are called into question by the media, ACA accreditation is cited as a defense. The Warren report noted instances of MTC, GEO, and CoreCivic doing just that when their operations were called into question (See PLN, Jul. 2016, p. 1).

The relationship between these private companies and ACA is deeply riddled with conflicts of interest. Aside from the fact that ACA’s primary revenue come from the accreditation of facilities that are essentially customers, the Association also lobbies for the private prison industry and criminal justice issues in general. More importantly, the personnel overlap between ACA and the private prison industry is significant. The nineteen member ACA Board of Governors has multiple people from private prison companies, including one each from GEO and CoreCivic. Eight other top ACA officials are either current or former private prison executives.

Considering the ACA is largely funded by the facilities it audits, it should not be surprising that audit and accreditation results are frequently misleading. The process includes a facility self-audit, request for accreditation, and formal ACA audit, each accompanied by the requisite fee. Accreditation is good for three years, and, on paper, requires facilities to meet 100% of mandatory standards and 95% of non-mandatory standards.

The reality is that facilities almost never fail. ACA reported accrediting dozens of federal facilities since 2014 and none of them had failed. Sen. Warren’s office found that essentially any private prison that paid the fees was accredited. The decision on accreditation is entirely up to the ACA Accreditation Committee, and as noted in the PLN article cited above, the deliberations of that committee or its subsequent reports are not made public.

Not surprisingly, this lax regimen results in accredited facilities that operate far below any reasonable standard. In 2008 and 2009, multiple federal facilities operated by GEO were the site of riots linked to poor conditions and medical care, despite being accredited months earlier. The BOP terminated its contract with an MTC-operated facility in Raymondville, Texas, because of operational lapses in 2015 despite the fact that the facility was accredited less than a year earlier.

The GEO-operated and ACA-accredited youth facility in Walnut Grove, Mississippi, was found by a federal judge to “paint a picture of such horror as should be unrealized anywhere in the civilized world.”

ACA policies provide mechanisms to deny or revoke accreditation. Yet according to a statement by the ACA, its “records do not indicate that ACA took any specific actions subsequent to these incidents.” All the facilities above, and many more, maintained accreditation and were subsequently re-accredited. 

The flaws in the ACA accreditation system undermine any positive impact an independent auditing group could possibly have. Conflicts of interest coupled with an empty audit process result in what the Warren report calls the “rubber-stamping of dangerous facilities and the waste of millions of taxpayer dollars.” The report concludes that the only real alternative is to end the federal and state reliance on ACA accreditation and stop outsourcing oversight to the prison industry itself. 


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