Last month, a briefing was held on the Private Prison Information Act (HR 2450). The measure was introduced by Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee. Our own Judy Greene presented at the briefing along with Joshua Miller of AFSCME, David Shapiro of the ACLU's National Prison Project, Tom Barry of the TransBorder Project, and Alex Friedman of the Private Corrections Institute. The briefing was hosted by Corrections USA and moderated by Eric Milman.
During the briefing, presenters like Judy made the case for expanding the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to all facilities detaining persons under federal jurisdiction. This would include immigrant detention centers in addition to private prison facilities.
According to Tom Barry's presentation, the problems with the current system include a lack of effective oversight.
A near-total absence of committed oversight has allowed the prison industry to flourish in the shadows. Requests for the most basic information about the functioning of these prisons and detention centers routinely lead nowhere.
Private operators like GEO Group bounce back media requests and questions from advocacy organizations to local government prison owners and to the federal outsources. In turn, local government entities [Inter Government Agreement] IGA's refer inquiries to their contracts and subcontractors knowing that this will lead to another dead end....
Judy Greene cited several specific examples of her experience with with the lack of oversight among private prison facilities including:
In June of 2000 the BOP awarded a contract to CCA for a 2,304-bed prison they had built on speculation in California City. Seeking to understand how CCA could acquire the legal power to operate this prison, including the power to use deadly force, in California -- a state which had not enacted legislation conferring such authority on private corporations, a colleague and I submitted a FOIA request for this critical information from [the Bureau of Prisons] BOP. After several months time, we sere notified that under federal regulations pertaining business information, the information I was seeking was exempt from FOIA because the company had deemed it to be a trade secret.
HR 2450 specifically addresses these issues by extending FOIA to all federally contracted prisons and detention centers. Jackson Lee's bill has garnered fifteen Congressional co-sponsors to date.
And the bill has also drawn opposition from companies with private prison interests -- most notably from the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). Congressman Tim Holden (D-PA) is a current co-sponsor of HR 2450 and introduced a similar measure in the last Congress that also garnered opposition. At the time Rep. Holden stated:
In recent weeks, opposition to this bill has mobilized. Although I cannot testify on their behalf, I can reiterate my concern that opposition to this bill is opposition to reporting transparency...
According to recent reports, CCA has paid a lot of money to lobby agains HR 2450 and similar measures. This appears to be significant since current CCA director Charles Overby is also CEO of the Freedom Forum an organization that champions the freedom of the press. HR 2450 is still in committee in the House. We will keep y'all posted of any developments related to the measure.