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PLN managing editor mentioned in article about Private Prison Information Act

Forbes, Feb. 7, 2013.
PLN managing editor mentioned in article about Private Prison Information Act - Forbes 2013

2/07/2013 @ 2:33PM

Private Prisons Are Exempted From Federal Disclosure Laws; Advocates Say That Should Change

It can be difficult to obtain information about how prisons operate.

Prison administrators often have legitimate security reasons for witholding, say, a map of a prison’s inner sanctum, or the home addresses of correctional officers working in solitary confinement units, or information about a murder behind bars that hasn’t yet been solved.

But since prisons operate in service of the justice system — and thus in service of U.S. citizens — there are also legitimate reasons why someone might like to know, say, the number of abuses reported against prisoners over a certain period of time at a certain prison, or the context of civil rights lawsuits filed against certain staff members or, as in this Idaho case, the number of hours COs work in a row without a break.

To accomodate these legitimate reasons for withholding and/or disclosing information, each state and the U.S. federal government have systems in place to evaluate whether a requested piece of information should be viewable to the public or not.

As it turns out, the federal disclosure system — the federal Freedom of Information Act — doesn’t apply to private prisons. So if a private prison company doesn’t explicitly reveal information, FOIA won’t force them to. In other words, if serious questions arise about the 27,970 or so prisoners in privately managed federal lockups or the 33,330 or so federal immigration detainees held in private facilities operated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, there’s no legal remedy in place forcing those questions to be answered.

There is a movement of prisoner rights advocates and nonprofits, however, who would like to change that.

They have rallied around Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D.-Houston.) to reintroduce the Private Prison Information Act, a bill that died in Congress two years ago. Put simply, this bill would, ensure that “[e]ach applicable entity shall be subject to … the Freedom of Information Act … in the same manner as a Federal agency operating a Federal prison or other Federal correctional facility would be subject to [FOIA].”

Those advocates — most actively, Alex Friedmann of Prison Legal News, and Christopher Petrella, a doctoral student in U.C. Berkeley — hope that Rep. Jackson Lee will reintroduce the bill again this year. They outline their reasons in this open letter, released late last year:

"We are deeply troubled by the secrecy with which the private corrections industry presently operates. Whereas the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and state departments of corrections are subject to disclosure statutes under the Freedom of Information Act and state-level public records laws, private prison firms that contract with public agencies generally are not,” the joint letter submitted to Rep. Jackson Lee noted. “This lack of public transparency is indefensible in light of the nearly $8 billion in federal contracts that Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group (GEO) – the nation’s two largest private prisons firms – have been awarded since 2007.”

Read an interview with Friedman and Petrella here.

Rep. Jackson Lee has yet to announce if she’ll reintroduce the bill.