A Push for Accountability in Private Prisons | Sojourners

A Push for Accountability in Private Prisons

Private prisons that receive federal funds should be held to the same standards of accountability as government-run prisons to ensure that inmates’ rights are protected, Maryland Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin said Tuesday introducing a measure to set transparency standards for a second time.

Cardin’s legislation would mandate that private prisons maintain records such as incident reports, staffing information, and care conditions — as federally run prisons do — and make those records subject to Freedom of Information Act requests. He said it is the “minimum we can do for transparency and accountability” in the system.

“We have seen many reported examples of abuse within our private prison population,” Cardin said at a briefing on private prisons. “We know that there are problems there, but we don’t have the information we need because they are exempt from the same requirements prisons run by the government need to comply with.” 

Since 2000, the private prison population has increased by 39 percent, according to The Sentencing Project.

For-profit prisons, as private entities, and are not subject to public records requests.

According to American Civil Liberties Union attorney Eunice Cho, most of the information the public receives about private prison conditions comes from interviews with inmates and their family members. She said it is difficult to get system-wide information in order to accurately assess the effectiveness or ethics of privatization, and the resulting lack of public awareness leads to an “intense feeling of isolation” for prisoners.

Mia Woodward, a policy counsel at nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said that because private prisons fulfill a government function, they should fall under government accountability standards.

“There’s no question that the revocation of a citizen’s rights to liberty and the pursuit of happiness … is not only a government activity, but the maximum exercise of governmental authority,” she said. 

Two of the largest private prison corporations, GEO Group and CoreCivic, did not respond to requests for comment.

GEO Group released its first Human Rights and Environmental, Social and Governance report in 2018, a 77-page document largely written for the company’s employees and stakeholders. The report emphasizes the Contract Compliance Division that monitors company practices and regularly performs audits to “assure compliance with the full range of standards and requirements set by our government customers.” The information from these audits then goes into an internal database and to GEO Group leadership.

Bill co-sponsor Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) pointed out that many states, such as Tennessee and Florida, already require private prisons to adhere to state transparency laws.

“There is no reason the federal government should not follow that lead,” he said.

Cardin proposed the same measure in 2017, but it died in committee without a hearing.

Leahy said that he and Cardin have “already talked about how to get Republicans and Democrats together” to support the bill. Cardin spokeswoman Sue Walitsky wrote in an email statement that “transparency should not be a partisan issue,” and that the senators are “hopeful” for bipartisan support.

“In my view, no one should make millions of dollars in profit from the deprivation of a person’s liberty,” Leahy said. “But at a minimum, no facility should be immune from our nation’s premier transparency law. It’s a giant black hole in which information about abuse, negligence, rights violations and other topics of public concern never see the light of day.”

Former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates wrote in a 2016 memo that contract prisons “do not save substantially on costs,” as many advocates for privatization argue.

A 2018 audit of Georgia correctional facilities found that private prisons cost about $5 more per day per inmate than prisons run by the state.

“For years, proponents of privatizing prisons have relied on the argument that contracting these services will allow for them to be provided at a lower cost, saving American taxpayers money,” Woodward said. “Yet we have no way of knowing whether that is actually true without access to key data that would allow the American public to demand an accounting for this claim.”