We are Blindly Bankrolling Private Prisons. Ever Guess What's Happening In Them?

December 23rd 2014

Alex Mierjeski

Last week, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) introduced legislation called the Private Prison Information Act, which could drastically change the way we obtain information about the notoriously secretive private prison industry. Although private prisons hold state and federal prisoners and operate largely on taxpayer money, transparent information about the inner workings of these institutions is difficult to access; private firms drag their feet in response to information requests and impose heavy redactions when they do respond. If someone wanted to find something out about a normal federal or state prison, there's a handy tool called the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which gives citizens access to federal government information. But even though private prisons essentially carry out a governmental role (not to mention being funded with taxpayer dollars), because they are privately operated and only contractually related to governments, they are exempt from FOIA requests.

Without the relatively easy access to policies, internal statistics, and other important operation information FOIA requests provide, the public is blindly bankrolling a massive operation. And without that sort of oversight, it's tough to determine problem cases and offer informed restructuring plans. It's also tough to determine what private firms might have a vested interest in keeping under wraps. We wanted to find out more about the private prison industry, its pernicious nature, and what this bill could change. We reached out to Christopher Patrella, a researcher at UC Berkeley who has been a vocal force against the unhealthy culture of incarceration in the U.S., and has written extensively on private prisons.  

What are private prisons, and why do I keep hearing so much about them?

Legally speaking, for-profit prison companies are allowed to contract with government agencies because the U.S. courts have not deemed incarceration an inherent or essential function of the state. That is, the government--broadly construed--has the legal authority to delegate carcerative services to non-public individuals and groups.  Typically, once government agencies decide which types of services they’d like to contract out, they issue a Request for Proposals (RFP). Private companies respond with bids for the contract and the winning firm receives a set payment in exchange for assuming responsibilities. Though revenue for contracts is derived almost completely from public taxes, the public has access to very little information on the operations of the for-profit prison companies they support financially. We see this as deeply problematic.

So basically, because our tax money goes to private prisons, we should have a right to know what happens inside them, right? 

Our argument is fairly straightforward: The public has a right to know how its money is being spent. Transparency and accountability obligate for-profit prison companies entering into government contracts answer to the public. It’s a centrist argument.

Earlier this month, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee reintroduced the something called the Private Prison Information Act. What is it, and what would it do?  

The Private Prison Information Act (PPIA) would require for-profit prison companies that contract with the federal government to comply with public records requests made under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to the same extent as federal agencies. Currently, FOIA does not apply to private prison companies that contract with the federal government.

Obligating private prison companies to comply with FOIA requirements applies a single standard for transparency in corrections reporting regardless of agency type. And because efforts to privatize federal facilities are on the rise – populations held in privately-operated facilities have grown by nearly 20 percent over the past year – the time is right to demand meaningful accountability in the for-profit prison industry.

So, I know that private prisons have been around since the 1980s, and I also heard that last year, they housed around 8% of all US inmates. So if they've been around that long and are that big, why has it taken this long for a bill like the PPIA to be proposed? 

Though five separate iterations of the Private Prison Information Act have been introduced in Congress since 2005, each bill has died in committee or subcommittee as a result of vigorous lobbying efforts on behalf of the for-profit prison industry. According to documentation maintained by the U.S. Senate’s Lobbying Disclosure Electronic Filing System, Corrections Corporation of America has spent over $7 million lobbying against the passage of various Private Prison Information Acts since 2005.

How hopeful can we be that this bill will make it anywhere, given that republicans, who have traditionally been supportive of private prisons, are taking over Congress next month? 

We’re cautiously optimistic about the future of the Private Prison Information Act. Our sense is that bringing transparency to the for-profit industry isn’t a left-right issue, it’s an issue central to a functioning society. Accountability is the foundation upon which democracy is built and sustained. Without it, what are we?

Christopher Patrella is a researcher at UC Berkeley. Find out more about his work and about private prisons on his website