Private Prisons Currently Exempt from Freedom of Information Act

Christopher Petrella

Nation of Change / OP-ED

Published: Tuesday 25 September 2012
 It seems that every few days I read a new press release or“study” commissioned by the private prison industry lauding its supposedly unmatched performance on measures of efficiency and safety relative to the public sector.  Despite the industry’s zeal for public approval, it routinely refuses to disclose the very information necessary to support its arguments.

Whereas public departments of corrections on the state and federal levels are subject to disclosure statutes under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), private prison firms contracting with public agencies are not. This level of concealment is indefensible in light of the $7.9 billion in federal contracts that the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group (GEO)—the two largest publicly-traded, private prison firms—have been awarded since 2007. If companies like CCA and GEO would like to continue to rely on taxpayer largess, then they should be required to adhere to the same disclosure laws as their public counterparts. The need for disclosure statutes providing the public access to information pertaining to the operations of private prisons is vital if reasonable comparisons are to be made between the private and public sectors. Since 2005 five separate iterations of a bi-partisan Private Prison Information Act—H.R. 1806 , S. 4031 , H.R. 1889,H.R. 2450 , and most recently H.R. 74  —have been introduced in Congress. Each bill has died in or before subcommittee hearings. The bills, which would have essentially obligated “non-governmental entities and state and local governmental entities that have agreements with any federal agencies to incarcerate or detain federal prisoners in a non-federal prison or correctional facility to comply with all FOIA requirements,” were met with resistance from the private prison industry every step of the way.

CCA has led the legislative attack.

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Since 2007 CCA has spent over $7 million lobbying against the passage of various Private Prison Information Acts. (Take a peek at their most recent disclosure from the second quarter of 2012. ) They claim that an exemption from the Freedom of Information Act protects their propriety interest in keeping their “trade secrets” private.

Excuse me, trade secrets? Doesn’t public safety rely in large measure on transparency and disclosure?

That the private prison industry vaunts its record of alleged publicsafety and savings means it implicitly recognizes the importance making appeals to the public good. And if the leading firms acknowledge  the value of the public good, then their efforts to lobby vociferously against the passage of the Private Prison Information Act is antithetical to their stated missions.

CCA and GEO can’t have it both ways, especially when organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have for decades now been chronicling the abusive conditions at a number of their facilities. 

Spending millions each year to defeat the very legislation that would support the industry’s claims of superior public safety and savings demonstrates that the for-profit corrections system stands at cross-purposes with itself.

Please write your Congressperson immediately and demand transparency in the private prison industry.  Free speech and free press are essential to an informed citizenry, and an informed population  is the only kind capable of building a world that values people over profit.

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