U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) reintroduced the Private Prison Information Act

As taxpayers we entrust the government to utilize our hard earned wages wisely.  Commonly, when we believe our tax dollars are misused, we exercise the rights afforded to us as a democratic society to hold those with power - lawmakers, leaders of agencies, etc. - to account.  One of the tools of our democracy’s accountability measures is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), a law that give us the right to access information from the federal government.  FOIA requests are often used to uncover corruption, scandals, mismanagement and other shortcomings in the functioning of our public systems.  

However, our ability to hold the government accountable becomes compromised when it outsources core functions, like incarceration, to private companies.  Currently, federal U.S. agencies (Bureau of Prisons, ICE, and the U.S. Marshalls) have outsourced the management of prison and immigrant detention facilities to private, for-profit companies like Corrections Corporation of America, GEO Group, and MTC (Management and Training Corporation).  Private corporations are not subject to FOIA laws even though they assume the role of the federal government in the administration of U.S. federal carceral facilities and are compensated with public tax dollars.  This fact creates tremendous barriers to justice for those who are incarcerated in privately-run federal facilities because the people who are tasked with protecting their rights do not, in this moment, have the right to request information about what is happening inside of these facilities.  This lack of transparency contributes, in our opinion, to the rampant cases of mismanagement, neglect, and other types of prisoner abuse that we have tracked for decades in private facilities, such as those documented in our Dirty 30 report.  

Since 2005 advocates have worked to pass the Private Prison Information Act (PPIA), which would require non-federal correctional and detention facilities that house federal prisoners to comply with FOIA laws by making certain records available to the public.  In the ten years since the first version of the bill was introduced, private prison companies have lobbied against its passage, and understandably so.  If private prison companies can no longer hide from public scrutiny, the truth of what happens behind the walls of their facilities will be exposed and their public image, along with their profits, are likely to suffer.  

This month U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) reintroduced the Private Prison Information Act (PPIA) in Congress following a joint letter endorsed by a broad group of more than fifty criminal justice, civil rights and public interest organizations expressing support for 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.”

Grassroots Leadership’s board member, Christopher Petrella, and our long-time friend and organizational ally, Alex Friedman of Prison Legal News and the Human Rights Defense Center, have been leading the effort.  “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 and ICE,” said Friedmann.   “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 public tax dollars,” Petrella added.

Stay tuned as we share opportunities to weigh in and move this bill through Congress!