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HRDC letter in support of Private Prison Information Act of 2017 - July 2017

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Human Rights Defense Center
DEDICATED TO PROTECTING HUMAN RIGHTS

July 11, 2017

The Honorable Sheila Jackson Lee
U.S. House of Representatives
2187 Rayburn HOB
Washington, DC 20515
Re: H.R. 1980 – Private Prison Information Act of 2017
Dear Representative Jackson Lee:
We, the undersigned criminal justice, civil rights and public interest organizations, submit this
letter to jointly express our support for the Private Prison Information Act of 2017, which you
reintroduced this past April as H.R. 1980. As you know, this bill, which will extend provisions
of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to private corrections companies that contract with
federal agencies—including the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, Immigration and Customs Enforcement
(ICE) and the U.S. Marshals—is a critical first step in bringing transparency and accountability
to the for-profit private prison industry.
We continue to be deeply troubled by the secrecy with which private prison companies operate.
While the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and state departments of correction are subject to FOIA and
state public records statutes, respectively, private prison firms that contract with public agencies
generally are not. The public deserves to know how its money is being spent, and government
officials should not be allowed to contract away the public’s right to obtain that information.
The need for transparency and public accountability with respect to private prisons is especially
important in light of a report released by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector
General (OIG) in August 2016. The report found that privately-operated facilities housing
federal prisoners for the BOP had higher average rates of contraband cell phones, tobacco and
weapons; higher rates of prisoner-on-prisoner assaults, prisoner-on-staff assaults and uses of
force; and more lockdowns, among other findings. 1

1

https://oig.justice.gov/reports/2016/e1606.pdf

Alex Friedmann, Associate Director
5331 Mt. View Road #130
Antioch, TN 37013
(615) 495-6568 • fax (866) 735-7136

afriedmann@prisonlegalnews.org

On August 18, 2016, then-Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates issued a memo stating the
Department of Justice was beginning the process of reducing and ultimately ending its use of
privately-operated prisons; she cited a declining BOP population as well as the OIG’s findings,
stating contract prisons “do not maintain the same level of safety and security.” 2
Although the Yates memo was rescinded by Attorney General Sessions earlier this year, 3 the
findings in the OIG report have not been refuted and indicate a need for greater oversight and
transparency at privately-operated facilities that house federal prisoners.
Additionally, in June 2016, Mother Jones magazine published an extensive article based on the
personal experiences of Shane Bauer, a reporter who worked undercover for four months at a
prison operated by Corrections Corporation of America (now known as CoreCivic). The detailed
article cited high levels of violence, staff shortages, misconduct by staff and insufficient medical
and mental health care, among other deficiencies. 4
If private prison companies like CoreCivic, GEO Group and MTC want to continue enjoying the
benefits of taxpayer-funded federal contracts, then they must be required to adhere to the same
disclosure laws applicable to their public counterparts, including FOIA.
Why should private prisons that house federal prisoners be any less accountable to the public
than the Bureau of Prisons or ICE? We contend that because the for-profit private prison industry
relies almost entirely on taxpayer support, and performs the inherently governmental function
of incarceration—depriving people of their liberty—the public has a right to obtain information
related to private prison operations.
While for-profit prison companies routinely claim they provide safe, secure and cost effective
services, they also routinely refuse to release information that would allow the public to
determine whether those claims are accurate.
As noted by the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), “Unlike government agencies,
private companies that are contracted by the federal government to run ICE detention centers are
not subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). This makes it much more difficult to
obtain information about these facilities. While the public can file FOIA requests with ICE or
other parts of the federal government for records related to these facilities, any records solely in
the possession of the contractors are out of reach.”
As just one example of the need for H.R. 1980, Professor Jacqueline Stevens at Northwestern
University filed a FOIA request with ICE, seeking copies of grievance logs at the CoreCivicoperated Stewart Detention Center—documents that would be subject to FOIA at public
facilities. In response, ICE stated, “A search of the ICE Office of Enforcement and Removal
Operations (ERO) was conducted and no records responsive to your request were found.” This
illustrates how the current system of submitting FOIA requests to federal agencies for records
maintained by private prisons is inadequate, as some records are only kept by the contractors.
2

https://www.justice.gov/archives/opa/file/886311/download
http://www.politico.com/f/?id=0000015a-6d3f-d49b-a77a-7fbf234a0001
4
http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2016/06/cca-private-prisons-corrections-corporation-inmates-investigationbauer/
3

2

And even when FOIA requests are filed with federal agencies seeking records related to private
prisons, the companies sometimes intervene to prevent disclosure of the records. For example,
both CoreCivic and GEO Group intervened to block the release of information related to their
contracts with the federal government in a FOIA lawsuit filed by Detention Watch Network and
the Center for Constitutional Rights. While the government did not appeal a district court ruling
that held the contracts must be disclosed, CoreCivic and GEO Group filed an appeal which
resulted in the Second Circuit ruling against the companies in April 2017. 5
Around 17.8% of federal prisoners 6 and 65% of immigration detainees 7 are held in privatelyoperated facilities. CoreCivic and GEO Group both receive more than 40% of their total revenue
from the federal government, and these are further reasons why transparency and accountability
are vitally important with respect to the private prison industry.
In the past, critics of the Private Prison Information Act have argued that its passage would set a
“dangerous precedent” with respect to FOIA overreach. However, the version of the PPIA you
have introduced applies narrowly to facilities that house federal prisoners, thus there is no danger
of overreach or extension to other government contractors.
Accordingly, we, the undersigned, express our support for H.R. 1980, as we believe that private
prisons must comply with the same FOIA requirements as their public counterparts. Comments
or questions regarding this letter may be directed to Alex Friedmann, Associate Director of the
Human Rights Defense Center, at (615) 495-6568 or afriedmann@prisonlegalnews.org; or to
Christopher Petrella, Ph.D., lecturer at Bates College, at (207) 786-8376 or
christopherfrancispetrella@gmail.com.

Respectfully,

Alabama CURE
Black & Pink
Prof. Byron Price, Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice, Harvard Law School
(individual capacity only)
Civil Rights Clinic, Michigan State University College of Law
Coalition for Prisoners’ Rights
Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition
Criminal Defense Clinic, CUNY School of Law
DeafCAN!
Demos

5

https://ccrjustice.org/home/press-center/press-releases/court-won-t-reconsider-private-prisons-appeal
https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/p15.pdf (Appendix Table 2)
7
https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/DHS%20HSAC%20PIDF%20Final%20Report.pdf
6

3

Detention Watch Network
Enlace / National Prison Divestment Campaign
Florida Justice Institute
Florida Legal Services
Grassroots Leadership
HEARD
Human Rights Defense Center
In the Public Interest
International CURE
John Howard Association of Illinois
JustLeadership USA
Justice for Families
Justice Strategies
Lewisburg Prison Project
Media Alliance
Middle Ground Prison Reform
National Center for Lesbian Rights
Nevada CURE
No Exceptions Prison Collective
Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project
Prison Activist Resource Center
Prison Policy Initiative
Private Corrections Institute
Private Corrections Working Group
Project on Government Oversight
Southern Center for Human Rights
Texas CURE
Texas Jail Project
The Center for Church and Prison
The Legal Aid Society of the City of New York
The Real Cost of Prisons Project
The Sentencing Project
Transformative Justice Law Project of Illinois
4

UC Davis School of Law Immigration Law Clinic
Uptown People’s Law Center
Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform
Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs

5

 

 

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