U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.) recently introduced legislation – The Private Prison Information Act of 2017 – that would ensure that private prisons are held to the same standard of information sharing and record keeping as federal detention facilities. Increasing transparency and accountability, S. 1728, extends the obligation to respond to Freedom of Information (FOIA) requests on the federal contracting agencies using existing FOIA procedures. Private prison companies that receive federal funding currently claim they are exempt from Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests due to a loophole in the current law. The legislation continues to allow the government to protect confidential, privileged, and sensitive information from public disclosure under existing exemptions and exclusions.
“Private prisons account for 20 percent of our federal prison and detention population but hide behind loopholes in the law when it comes to how they perform their job on behalf of the American people. Security breaches, overcrowding and misuse of funds were among the many reasons the Justice Department rightly began to phase out the use of private prison contracts,” said Senator Cardin. “These companies receive federal funds and provide the same service as governmental agencies. They perform the ‘inherently governmental function’ of incarcerating individuals convicted of a crime by the federal government. They must be held accountable to the same standards.”
The Private Prison Information Act has been endorsed by major organizations committed to “government openness and accountability, civil liberties, human rights, and civil rights.” In a letter to senators, they write that “[t]he Department of Justice Inspector General has found that federal prisons run by private companies are substantially less safe and secure than ones run by the Bureau of Prisons … the public is largely in the dark with regard to the functioning of the many of this country’s private prisons, and the industry operates with a lack of oversight and accountability mechanisms. This dynamic hinders the ability of the government and public to ensure private prison companies are living up to their contractual obligations and not wasting taxpayer dollars.”
“When federal agencies hand people over to the custody of for-profit prison companies, those prisons must be held accountable to the public. But for years, private prison companies have used the FOIA loophole to deny access to incident reports, staff communications, and other documents that could shed light on what is happening behind their gates,” said Carl Takei of the ACLU National Prison Project. “This legislation will close this dangerous FOIA loophole.”
“For-profit prisons should be subject to the same public access and information laws with which federal prisons must comply,” according to Lisa Rosenberg, Executive Director of OpenTheGovernment. “The FOIA loophole for private prisons must be closed to ensure that corporations running private prisons are living up to their contractual obligations, that they are not wasting taxpayer dollars, and that they are as safe and secure as their federal counterparts.”
Organizations endorsing S. 1728 include: the American Civil Liberties Union, American Library Association, American Society of News Editors, Association of Alternative Newsmedia, Backbone Campaign, Campaign for Accountability, Citizen for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), Defending Rights & Dissent, Demand Progress, Free Liberal, Government Accountability Project, Human Rights Watch, OpenTheGovernment, Liberty Coalition, National Security Archive, New England First Amendment Coalition, OpenTheGovernment, People For the American Way, Project On Government Oversight, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press Taxpayers Protection Alliance, FreedomWorks and The Rutherford Institute.
Private Prisons Lock Out the Public’s Right to Know, USA Today