Reintroducing the Private Prison Information Act: An Interview
by Mel Motel
Christopher Petrella and Alex Friedmann are leading a coalition of organizations urging U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) to reintroduce the Private Prison Information Act during the 113th Congress. I reached them both on the phone on a busy afternoon on January 9, 2013. Alex spoke from his office in Nashville, Tennessee while Christopher was on the road in Boston.
Christopher Petrella is a doctoral student in U.C. Berkeley’s Department of African American Studies; his dissertation focuses on the intersection of race, class and prison privatization. He also teaches classes at San Quentin State Prison.
Alex Friedmann is the managing editor of Prison Legal News, associate director of the Human Rights Defense Center and president of the Private Corrections Institute, which opposes prison privatization. He spent ten years behind bars, including six years at a facility in Tennessee operated by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA).
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MEL MOTEL: So let’s talk about this bill, the Private Prison Information Act (PPIA). Why is this bill important? Who should care about this issue?
ALEX FRIEDMANN: The PPIA would apply to private prison contractors on the federal level – it would subject them to the same obligations under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that apply to public corrections agencies. Currently, FOIA does not apply to privately-operated prisons. This is important as a transparency issue. It would put all federal facilities, both prisons and detention centers, public and private, on equal footing – it doesn’t matter where people are housed, the facilities should still be subject to FOIA. So beyond it being an issue for just prisoners or people that are directly connected to prisoners, it’s a public taxpayer issue.
CHRISTOPHER PETRELLA: Our question is fairly straightforward: How can private prisons operate free from FOIA obligations while receiving public dollars? The contradiction is glaring and it corrodes the notion of an open democracy.
MM: And why should this concern us at this particular moment?
CP: We’ve reached a point where two opposing forces are beginning to collide. The first is a rapidly expanding mass of citizens disturbed by the lack of transparency and accountability within the private prison industry; a few years ago it seemed the only people concerned were those of us in smaller “social justice communities.” Now, articles on prison privatization are popping up all over the place: the New York Times, Washington Post, L.A. Review of Books….
The second vector is what’s best described as “concentrated growth.” Although, according to a recent BJS [Bureau of Justice Statistics] study, the total U.S. prison population decreased over the last year, those in privately-operated federal facilities grew by 20%. It’s the single largest area of corrections and detention growth in the country. My sense in speaking with people, including Alex, is that the public is hungry for answers and now has enough information at its disposal to start asking the right, tough questions.
AF: Right now the level of private prison involvement on the federal level is at an all-time high. CCA and GEO are getting upwards of 40% of their revenue from federal sources. As long as this is occurring, there is a greater need than ever for transparency. For example, in May 2012 there was a large-scale riot at a CCA-operated Bureau of Prisons facility in Mississippi, which resulted in the death of a CCA employee. With a public corrections agency, to find out what happened you’d file a FOIA request, get information on the riot and learn how this guy was killed. But since it’s a CCA prison and FOIA does not apply, you can’t easily obtain information about what happened.
MM: Alex, you spent six of your ten years behind bars in a private prison operated by CCA. From your experience, what were some of the differences between the private prison and the state-run?
AF: In the private prison there was an emphasis on cost-cutting: on security, the use of prison labor – which increased the bottom line of the company. There was rationing of blankets and toilet paper. There was high staff turnover – new guards were constantly coming in and replacing the ones who were leaving.
MM: You’ve mentioned that “efforts to privatize federal detention facilities are on the rise” and that “populations held in privately-operated facilities have grown by nearly 20 percent over the past year.” What do you understand to be the reasons behind this growth?
CP: Well, the Migration Policy Institute recently released a report finding that the budget for ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] ballooned by 87% since 2005, mostly as a result of “Operation Streamline,” a policy that forces undocumented migrants through the federal criminal justice system and into U.S. prisons instead of routing non-violent individuals caught “crossing the border” into civil deportation proceedings. Just last year over 400,000 detainees passed through our federal immigration system, a system – I might add – in which a full 50% of detention facilities are contracted to private companies.
MM: And who should care about this?
CP: Though everyone loses when the democratic nature of our justice system is compromised, some lose more than others. People of color, for instance, are overrepresented in the private corrections industry, even relative to public corrections populations, in many of the largest states. The PPIA is therefore particularly important to communities of color that disproportionately interface with some of the most closed, secretive and anti-democratic social institutions around: private prisons.
AF: The PIPA also concerns policy makers, because they make public policy decisions based on private prison companies’ track records. Unless they’re getting accurate information, they’re not making accurate decisions. You have to have a level playing field for providing equal information before you can make an informed and educated decision. Basically, everybody – taxpayers, policy makers, incarcerated people, families of prisoners – should be concerned about this. Just because a government agency contracts out prison operations, it cannot contract out the public’s right to know what the government is doing and how taxpayer money is being spent.
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On December 18, 2012, the Human Rights Defense Center submitted a joint letter to Rep. Jackson Lee urging her to reintroduce the PPIA, which she had previously introduced in each session of Congress since 2007 without success. The letter was signed by 34 criminal justice, civil rights and public interest organizations, including the ACLU National Prison Project, FedCURE, In the Public Interest, Justice Policy Institute, Justice Strategies, Southern Center for Human Rights, Southern Poverty Law Center, The Sentencing Project, Texas Civil Rights Project, Center for Constitutional Rights, National Immigrant Justice Center and YouthBuild USA, Inc.
The joint letter to Rep. Jackson Lee, which was coordinated by Christopher and Alex, noted that “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, some state courts have held that private prison firms that contract with public agencies generally are not. 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.”
Individuals who want to support the reintroduction of the PPIA during the 113th Congress should contact Rep. Jackson Lee’s office directly at 2160 Rayburn Building, Washington, DC 20515 (202) 225-3816. Organizations that want to support this effort are encouraged to contact Christopher at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Alex at email@example.com. For additional information, see: http://www.privateprisoninformationactof2013.com.