Your annual reminder: FOIA still doesn’t apply to private prisons

A federal flip-flop on their efficacy hasn’t brought corporate corrections closer to accountability

Written by Beryl Lipton
Edited by JPat Brown

What right to privacy do for-profit prisons have? Should it be closer to those of a company like Hilton Hotels or Lockheed Martin, or closer to that of the governments alongside which they provide their incarceration services?

Through the Freedom of Information Act and equivalent state laws, the operations and artifacts of the government’s activities are made available to citizens and businesses. This level of openness, though, severely flawed as it is in practice, often doesn’t extend to the private businesses, contractors, non-profits, and other entities with whom government agents share their work. Among these are major prison companies, like GEO Group and CoreCivic, and a slowly-shrinking group of lesser known businesses focused on managing lock-ups at a cost they claim is less than that these agencies would otherwise be paying.

Since their inception, this built-in barrier to accountability has bothered opponents of prison privatizations. Prison rights advocacy group Prison Legal News, for one, has brought challenges in Florida, Tennessee, Vermont

and Texas in which courts have agreed that such protections are inappropriate for an industry doing a job that is normally left up to the actors of government law enforcement.

But at the federal level, FOIA remains limited in what it can lodge from private prisons. Multiple attempts to specifically extend the rights of the FOIA to private prisons have failed to go anywhere in Congress, even while the lack of private prison data has itself hindered government efforts to track the usefulness of its relationship with them, even while that relationship is being touted as indispensible and its use, particularly for immigrant detention centers, continues to expand.

New efforts to break open private prison materials have been introduced into Congress this session, though the current legislative atmosphere may prove to be an obstacle in itself on an issue the industry has spent millions lobbying against.

MuckRock will continue to track the issue of private prison and public access. Follow our efforts on the Private Prison Project or by joining our mailing list.

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Image courtesy of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.