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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

One glaring omission from Prison Photography is ICE detention centres and the prisons specifically designed for immigrants. Apart from the public stunts of Sheriff Arpaio (here and here) I have not featured any photography of immigrant detention or prisons.

This is partly because immigration policy and deportation infrastructures aren’t an area I know much about, but mainly because immigrant jails and prisons are the most invisible of all prisons in America. The media simply cannot get access like they can into state and county sites of incarceration.

As a course of policy, ICE detention sites are kept hidden. Allow me to push back against that a little:

Map courtesy of Global Detention Project.
More resources at the Detention Watch Network

In an attempt to redress this dearth of immigration coverage on Prison Photography, I point you in the direction of Tom Barry’s interview on Fresh Air yesterday. Thanks to Bob for the tip-off.

Here’s some things I learnt:

– Over the past five years immigrant imprisonment has increased 400%
– The policy of immediate deportation for illegal immigrants was replaced by imprisonment and deportation; a deliberate tactic intended to punish and deter future attempts to cross the US border illegally.
– Legal definitions of crime have broadened since 1996. Couple this with a syncopation of agency databases means constant threats of stop, search, detention and deportation of immigrants (both legal and illegal) now exist that did not 5 years ago.
– In this new era distinctions between legal and illegal immigrants have shrunk.
– Legal immigrants are subject to “a separate penal system”.
– 30% of deportees to Mexico don’t speak Spanish.
– The 11 border prisons are intentionally remote and located in economically depressed towns along the US/Mexico border.
– Immigrant prisons have a structure of financing and ownership that is unique. Tom Barry calls it “The Public/Private Prison Complex”, in which tax dollars and private corporations mix and match the funding. In many instances, administrators could not actually state who owned the facilities. This results in diluted accountability.
– The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the Geo group are the two largest private prison companies involved in immigrant detention.
– Privatised prisons were once a rarity in America. CCA and Geo got their start under Reagan winning contracts to house immigrants.
– CCA and Geo have enjoyed record profits over the past 8 years. 45% of their income derives from from state and federal contracts outsourcing immigrant detention.
– The perversely named ‘Operation Reservation Guaranteed’ means that detainees will always be sent to a bed/cell even if it is on the other side of the country. The transportation costs are met by the tax-payer.
– Wackenhut, an arm of Geo group, is the sub-contractor for these long, expensive and unnecessary transportations.
– It is common that detainees are moved without warning or reason. It is common that detainees cannot be located by the private prison companies for long periods.
– And much, much more. Listen, I highly recommend.

Tom Barry covers border security and immigration issues as the Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for International Policy. He has written several books, including The Great Divide and Zapata’s Revenge.

Tom just published A Death in Texas a piece for the Boston Review about a riot at an ICE prison in Texas. The riot was an “act of solidarity” by the detained population following the death of a young prisoner.

Tom maintains the Border Lines blog for the TransBorder Project is a project of the Americas Policy Program in Mexico City and the Center for International Policy in Washington, DC..

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