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I was astounded when a press release (copied below) hit my inbox. Currently, private prison corporations have no legal requirement to provide the same types and amount of information that the public and journalists can demand of state and federal prisons!

A new law looks to correct this disparity.

Last week, U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) reintroduced the Private Prison Information Act (PPIA) in Congress. The bill, HR 5838, requires non-federal correctional and detention facilities that house federal prisoners to comply with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The Human Rights Defense Center made the following press release last week:

Private Prison Information Act Reintroduced in Congress, to Ensure Public Accountability at Privately-Operated Prisons

Currently, private companies such as Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group are not required to comply with FOIA requests even when they operate facilities that hold federal prisoners through contracts with federal agencies, and are paid with public taxpayer funds. This includes privately-operated facilities that house immigration detainees.

Alex Friedmann, associate director of the Human Rights Defense Center, and Christopher Petrella, a doctoral student at UC Berkeley, have worked closely with Rep. Jackson Lee’s staff over the past two years to reintroduce the PPIA during the 113th Congress.

Various versions of the PPIA have been introduced since 2005; however, private prison firms and their supporters have lobbied against the bills. For example, CCA’s federal lobbying disclosure statements have specifically referenced lobbying related to the PPIA.

Friedmann and Petrella argue that because private prison corporations rely almost entirely on taxpayer funds, and perform the inherently governmental function of incarceration, the public has a right to obtain information pertaining to private prison operations. In short, the government should not be able to contract away the public’s right to know through FOIA requests.

Friedmann testified before the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security in June 2008 in support of a previous version of the Private Prison Information Act.

A coalition of 34 criminal justice, civil rights and public interest organizations submitted a joint letter to Rep. Jackson Lee in December 2012, followed by a renewed letter on June 11, 2014, expressing support for the PPIA and encouraging her to reintroduce 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.”

The signatories to the joint letter included the Center for Constitutional Rights, Center for Media Justice, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Florida Justice Institute, Grassroots Leadership, Enlace, In the Public Interest, National CURE and FedCURE, Justice Policy Institute, Justice Strategies, Prison Policy Initiative, Private Corrections Institute, Southern Center for Human Rights, The Sentencing Project, Southern Poverty Law Center and Texas Civil Rights Project. The NAACP has also voiced support for the PPIA.

“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,” said Friedmann. “That is only fair and reasonable, but private prison companies will most likely object to the bill, as they favor secrecy over fairness.”

“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 your and my tax dollars,” Petrella added. “We’ll continue to work tirelessly until this bill is brought to fruition.”

For more information:

Visit the Private Prison Information Act website.

Alex Friedmann
Associate Director, Human Rights Defense Center
(615) 495-6568
afriedmann@prisonlegalnews.org

Christopher Petrella
(860) 341-1684
christopherfrancispetrella@gmail.com

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