NEWS

Should the Freedom of Information Act Apply to Private Prisons?

By Matthew Harwood

Congress yesterday heard testimony debating the merits of extending the Freedom of Information Act's (FOIA) reporting requirements to private prisons that contract with the federal government.

Legislation before the House of Representatives would mandate that private prisons receiving federal contracts allow public access to the same information covered by FOIA in government institutions.

The debate pits the public's right to know what's occurring in taxpayer-funded institutions against a private company's right to privacy.

"For-profit facilities receiving federal dollars should be subject to the same reporting requirements public facilities are subject to," Representative Tim Holden (D-PA), the sponsor of the legislation, said. "It is a matter of public safety."

Currently, private prisons are not required to report to the federal government incidences of rape, assault, weapons attacks, death, or escape at the facility, he said. Roughly 25,000 federal inmates are currently held in private prisons nationwide.

Michael Flynn, director of government affairs for the pro-privatization Reason Foundation, argued that private prisons already produce reports for their federal contracting agencies, making that information available under a FOIA request. If the federal government wants more extensive reporting of private prison operations, he said, it should make disclosure of such information a contract requirement.

"Imagination is the only limit on what federal agencies can require companies partnering with the government to disclose," he said.

Flynn also cautioned that extending FOIA to private prisons would set the precedent of extending it to all private facilities receiving government contracts. By doing so, companies could experience breaches of trade secrets, not to mention a crushing load of FOIA-related paperwork. The costs associated with such a development would ultimately be born by taxpayers paying higher contracts to government contractors, he said.

But Alex Friedman, associate editor of Prison Legal News, which opposes prison privatization, testified that his publication has tried to request information from private prisons operating in Tennessee and Florida under each state's public records law only to be ignored or denied the request by the company.

After filing suit in both cases, the GEO Group, which runs the prison in Florida, agreed to give the requested information to Prison Legal News. The suit against the Corrections Corp. of America (CCA), the nation's largest private prison provider which also runs the prison in Tennessee, is ongoing.

A former prisoner at a CCA facility in Tennessee in the 1990s, Friedman said he obtained internal CCA documents while imprisoned that reported misconduct by the prison's staff  but the information has never been made public.

CCA also faced allegations of overcrowding and poor medical care at three of its facilities that house illegal immigrants. Tom Jawetz, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, said of the three immigration detention lawsuits his office filed this year, all involved CCA-run facilities. In one instance, he said, children as young as three were made to wear prison uniforms and were confined for 12 hours each day without adequate access to education, exercise, or a pediatrician.

If private prisons already provided all the information necessary for public transparency and accountability that federal prisons do, Friedman said, then the current legislation wouldn't be needed.

"However, because private prison companies have repeatedly demonstrated they are unwilling to respond to FOIA and public record requests, this legislation is necessary."

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