The Private Prison Project

Despite what you've heard, for-profit detention continues to reap the rewards of an incarceration system filled to the brim and facing an uncertain future. Over the last two years, our FOIA requests have released thousands of documents that show how for-profit prisons have leveraged the legal system to their advantage, letting companies pick-and-choose inmates to off-load costs, ignore complaints and concerns, and create dangerous conditions for prisoners and staff alike. This is all done while billions of taxpayer dollars are funneled into these private companies, which then pour millions into politicians' campaigns to keep their growth going. With your help, we can provide needed scrutiny of an industry few are even aware exists.

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The Private Prison Project is an effort to use public records laws around the country to draw attention to the gaps and blocks in accountability around the for-profit detention industry. By contributing, you’ll be helping us fund fees and release records to policy makers, journalists, lawyers, and curious individuals nationwide.

Backed by Dave Maass, Kevin Pierce, Michael Morisy, Annette Heist, and 101 others.

$4,405.00 raised out of $10,000.00.

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The private correctional industry as we now see it grew out of eighties privatization fervor. Like so many corporate promises, the prospect of a quick fix has gotten many a government “partner” to sign on.

In response to overcrowded state prisons, private operators promise to build up quickly, hire local people at below-government rates and benefits, and spend less to hold more people.

And the host cities are often eager: They’re often towns with decimated industry and little hope of that changing. So build a prison. Garner the favor of a corporate sponsor, create jobs, and a healthy economy. It’s an appealing offer. And it’s legal.

  • CoreCivic - Red
  • GEO Group - Blue
  • Management and Training Corporation - Green

The result is a rash of towns across America where a huge chunk of the population is incarcerated and where the city’s financial well-being relies on the continuance of tough-on-crime legislation and enforcement, no matter the human or economic cost.

All are symptoms of failing local economies looking for a “responsive corporate citizen” to give them a chance.

The profit motive is firmly entrenched in our criminal justice system. We’ve a long history of using inmate labor and fees to finance the incarceration apparatus and, consequently, incentivize it. Extracting that element from the system will be difficult, to say the least, particularly with players batting for multiple teams–government, companies, and “independent” regulatory bodies.

The Big Three

The giants of the for-profit prison system — Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), GEO Group, Management and Training Corporation (MTC) — pour millions into lobbying for legislation and conditions amenable to the perpetuation of incarceration; in return, they enjoy billions in profits and the cushion cash gives against financial penalties for any indiscretions that happen to be caught. CCA itself dismissed the impact of disciplinary fines, as “the total for such fines comprises approximately .19% of CCA’s contract receipts.” Coupled with the codependent attitude of the towns themselves, these companies are able to operate with a clear advantage. Then, the policies and contracts that have been borne of these liaisons bring themselves to bear upon those in the worst position to do anything about it.

Behind the Bars

Our eyes on the inside are the incarcerated themselves, but from the outset, their complaints have been virtually inaccessible. Prisoners, public and private, are subjected to a strict series of procedural complaint requirements; individual grievance records are kept internally, meaning that to revisit them would require sometimes thousands of dollars for search time alone. Functionally, the private operators have often been given full responsibility over grievance resolution.

Employees, too, face the same risks faced as all correctional officers, yet they lack many of the same methods of relief. The absence of government benefits contributes to much of the cost-savings that private facilities actually provide, and their employees must contend with the added pressure of reporting negative incidents in the face of shareholder scrutiny.

Hidden Costs

We know that public jail and prison operators get kickbacks on commissary, phone calls, and the sale of inmate labor. How much private operators make on such side revenue remains a mystery.

We’re barely allowed to know how much they’re paying to hold people they believe are in the country illegally. But we do know that corporations have put big bucks into encouraging their detainment.

Records that would otherwise be public are withheld from disclosure. But despite that, it’s become clear that the promise of one low price has come with all sorts of caveats. Look at Lake Erie, where the switch to privatization has meant more aid from local services. Or Torrance County, where added medical expenses have cost the town thousands more than it had anticipated. Or any of the multiple towns left holding defaulted bonds after their prison promises just didn’t pan out. By withholding their records, it’s nearly impossible to get a clear picture of just how accurate their sales pitches actually are.

Refuse To Know Nothing

Your support will help tell the story of the lives behind the contracts, amplifying the unheard voices on both sides of these agreements. By showing the concrete implications for towns that host private prisons, and the near impossibility of escape from within this system, we’ll show how widespread the practical challenges are across this debate.

Image via Pixabay

77 Articles

New York City shows how easy divesting from private prisons can be

Divesting from companies at the municipal level is a city-wide form of direct action that, this summer, New York City used this against for-profit prisons.

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While deportation rates drop, the number of people held at detention centers steadily rises

The task of enforcing our country’s immigration laws has become a sprawling responsibility in the United States, and the mechanisms by which non-citizens are detained and removed are facing a lot of strain: practically, financially, and socially.

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How does a private prison handle a hurricane?

We’ve filed requests with privately-run prisons and immigration detention centers in Harvey’s path to find out how they weathered the storm.

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Kindle Project supports MuckRock’s work to open up Trump administration and private prisons

MuckRock’s mission has been to make government more accountable and open to the people. For the past three years that’s included a special focus on private prisons, and late last year we launched a project focused on the incoming Trump administration. Today, we’re excited to announce a $10,000 grant by the Kindle Project to further those missions, as well as a part-time opening.

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Senate Bill 1728 would make private prisons subject to Freedom of Information Act

Congress is looking to limit the secrecy of for-profit prison companies, and MuckRock has joined a coalition of 50 nonprofit and public interest organizations to support this cause of transparency and accountability at contract facilities.

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Looking back at the last three years in private prisons

Developments in the last three years have injected drama into the lives of private prison companies, but the criticisms of watchdogs in and out of government proved no match for correctional companies in support of the new Presidential administration.

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Private prisons still pose plenty of unanswered questions

Private prisons face many of the same obstacles as their public counterparts: drugs, violence, rowdy inmates or rowdy correctional officers. But their operations and how they manage these ubiquitous issues remain a black spot on the corrections ecosystem.

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Five ways private prisons break the rules - and get away with it

Private prisons have received increased scrutiny in the last few years, and Inspectors General and independent investigations have found more than a few questionable habits behind one of the government’s top contracting agents.

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

Though challenges have been brought successfully in four states where private prisons operate, federal public records law remains inapplicable to the operations of for-profit prisons.

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Better know a private prison giant: GEO Group’s Board of Directors

Who’s overseeing America’s largest for-profit immigration detention operation? More than a few familiar faces, including former leaders at the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, and Department of Justice.

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Better know a private prison giant: CoreCivic’s Board of Directors

Who’s overseeing America’s largest for-profit prison operation? More than a few familiar faces, including one former head of a federal law enforcement agency.

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Nevada governor vetoes bill banning private prisons

Nevada’s move to ban for-profit prisons ended in a veto last week. Instead the state, which is dealing with overcrowding in its own facilities, will send prisoners to for-profit operators out-of-state without any anticipated caps on the practice.

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New York becomes first city to fully divest from private prisons

New York City announced last week that it had become the first city to fully divest from private prisons in its pension fund investments, liquidating approximately $48 million in stocks and bonds supporting for-profit prison companies.

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Nevada is poised to become the first state in the Trump era to ban private prisons

Three states currently have explicit prohibitions on the use of for-profit prisons for the housing of state and local inmates, and Nevada now stands to become the first southwestern state to ban the housing private correctional facilities.

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The Private Prison Project heads to Florence, Arizona

Beryl Lipton’s research trip to the desert mecca of for-profit detention is derailed by broken computers, misinformed security guards, and police on the look-out for “suspicious activity.”

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Trump administration looks to private-public partnerships for infrastructure overhaul

In the next few weeks President Donald Trump is slated to release a highly-anticipated plan for an overhaul of the nation’s infrastructure, and with an anticipated total tag of nearly a trillion dollars, there will certainly be plenty of feeders fighting at the trough of public funds.

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Fate of family detention centers will be left to the courts

The houses of the Texas State Congress effectively split on whether to consider immigrant detention centers as “child care”-like facilities, keeping a federal judgement on acceptable standards for family detention in place for now.

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Private prisons among Alaska’s current investments

As recent Securities and Exchange Commission filings from the Alaska Department of Revenue show, these investments can cover the gamut of companies, as one might expect from a diversified portfolio

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A guide to holding private prisons accountable in Arizona

Home to dozens of prisons, Arizona is a hotbed for private corrections, which operate local jails, state facilities, and immigrant detention centers. Public records can help gain entry to how things are going in the prison champion of the West.

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Justice Department releases damning audit of CoreCivic’s Leavenworth Detention Center

A report released by the Department of Justice yesterday details an assortment of concerns with wider implications for prisons that contract with the U.S. Marshals Service nationwide.

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Private prisons get taxed at a lower rate than you do

According to the most recent 10-K filings submitted by the giants of the private prison industry, GEO Group and CoreCivic (formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America), the leaders in for-profit incarceration enjoy an effective tax rate in the low single digits.

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The booming business of Guantanamo Bay

The U.S. installation continues to claim millions of dollars in private contracts, including for G4S, an outgrowth of prison operator GEO Group’s parent, Wackenhut, and other private security operators tasked with running the base’s Migrant Operations Center.

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Meet Ahtna, Alaska’s very own private prison company

We know that CoreCivic and GEO Group continue to dominate the field of for-profit incarceration. But what do we know about the little guys looking to help the government with lock-ups? Meet Ahtna, Alaska’s very own private prison company.

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Three states have banned private prisons. Is yours one of them?

Many states have already paved a way for a private prison presence, even if not all of them use it. Check out our map to see if you live someplace that could allow them right now.

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Don’t call it a comeback: Sessions rescinds Justice Department phase out of private prisons

Mere months after the Department of Justice announced that it would be “phasing out” its use of private prisons, newly-confirmed Attorney General Jeff Sessions has reversed course on the department’s intentions.

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Louisiana, how shall you reject us? Let us count the ways

A public records request in Louisiana can lead to a laundry list of reasons why it won’t be fulfilled.

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Your state doesn’t need to have a private prison to use one

Vermont’s supply of a few hundred prisoners is set to close a Michigan prison this summer. If all of them go home, just Hawaii and California will remain as states that outsource their inmates to out-of-state for-profit prisons.

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New Mexico town nixes plan to consolidate sex offenders in a nearby private prison

A year ago, the New Mexico Department of Corrections tried to change private operators for its sex offender population. Soon after, citizens stepped up to say no.

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This is why private prisons shouldn’t control access to their records

After two years and charging a rate of dollar a page, private prison giant CCA responds to request for grievance logs from a New Mexico private prison with 78 pages of big black boxes.

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Help us help you help the Private Prison Project

For over two years, MuckRock has been using public records to challenge the opacity of for-profit detention operations and insist on stronger contracts and clearer comparisons. As we push forward into 2017, help us continue our inquiry into one of the most secretive sectors of the criminal justice system.

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Trump’s tough talk on immigration spells huge profit for private prisons

With millions of undocumented immigrants estimated to live in the U.S., the Trump administration’s moves towards stricter immigration and detention regulations are all signs pointing toward profit for an established network of private prison operators.

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What’s ahead for the Private Prison Project in 2017

A new year and a new president may mean better business than usual for private prisons. As we tackle another segment of the Private Prison Project, join us in whatever way you can to fight for greater transparency in our criminal justice system.

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From FBI reject to private warlord: the rise of George Wackenhut

He gave his name to what would become the biggest private detention company in the world. But he got his start over sixty years ago here at home in Hoover’s FBI. Meet George Wackenhut.

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With Trump, the private prison industry is stronger than ever

Just three months ago, private prisons were feeling the sting of a Justice Department report that became ammunition for a phase-out. But the renewed feeling of a Reagan-era, privatization redux is good news for a sector now poised for a new uncertain reign of law and order.

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The government isn’t ending its relationship with private prisons - far from it

Lots of lip service has been given to ending private prisons, but with state and immigration contracts keeping hundreds of for-profit prisons still operating, many would remain in business even without help from the federal government.

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Requester’s Voice: Beryl Lipton

For over two years, dozens of articles, and thousands of public records requests, Beryl Lipton’s Private Prison Project has given much needed scrutiny to the incarceration industry. In anticipation of a talk Beryl will be giving on Friday, we interviewed her regarding her motivation for starting the project, her methodology for getting records released, and what she’s learned along the way.

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All prisons are private prisons

Despite recent wins, media coverage and auditor skepticism may not be enough to keep the growth of private prisons in check for the long run. But you can help.

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The solution to the problems created by prison privatization? More privatization.

The latest report from the BOP Inspector General calls for closer oversight of contract prisons, highlighting an important shared trait with their public counterparts: the problems they face. From whole cloth outsourcing to individual ceiling tiles, the private sector is willing to help.

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The Private Prison Primer: At what cost? Part 2

For decades, the he-said, she-said has worked in the favor of the private prison operator. They said that they’d be cheaper. They said that they would be more efficient. They said that recidivism would go down. And yet, despite little evidence that any of that is true, their stocks go up.

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The Private Prison Primer: At what cost? Part 1

Do ‪private prisons‬ actually save money? We don’t have the ‪data‬ to answer that question, and if the industry gets its way, we never will.

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The Private Prison Primer: Stolen shoes and the Kingman riots, Part 2

With the summer heat approaching, we look at the process inmates go through for relief before resorting to rioting - the ways you can question operations near you.

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The Private Prison Primer: Stolen shoes and the Kingman riots Part 1

With few opportunities to voice their experiences, inmates offer their own insights into prison culture through their complaints. But between record-keeping and paperwork control, access makes them a hard resource to look at until its too late.

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The Private Prison Primer: A tale of two prison towns Part 2

With combined revenues of over $3 billion dollars, it’s easy enough to point to GEO Group and CCA as fueling the private incarceration industry. But between their prisons, jails, immigrant detention centers, youth residential centers, and community corrections facilities, there are now 151 communities complicit across the country, where local cooperation has been necessary to the expansion of private prisons.

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The Private Prison Primer: A tale of two prison towns Part 1

The expansion of private - and public - prisons across the U.S. helps illustrate the tangle created when social and economic needs come into conflict.

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The Private Prison Primer: What are we really signing on for? Part 4

In the fourth and final part of MuckRock’s introduction to private prison contracts, we consider the failures of standard safeguards and the importance of public vigilance in a growing industry.

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The Private Prison Primer: What are we really signing on for? Part 3

In part 3 of MuckRock’s look at private prison contracts, we point out the add-ons and hidden costs that keep companies comfortably within government standards.

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The Private Prison Primer: What are we really signing on for? Part 2

What is the government looking for when it decides it wants a private prison? In part 2 of our look at private prison contracts, we take a step back to the Request for Proposal, the government’s opening invitation for bidders to throw in their offers.

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The Private Prison Primer: What are we really signing on for? Part 1

Private prisons operate in dozens of towns and cities across America - today, we kick off a four-part series looking at the lucrative government contracts designed to keep them there.

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The Private Prison Primer: Who regulates this? Part 2

If you’re interested in a public company, their Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filings are an easy, obvious place to look for information. That said, SEC filings can be pretty drab, and even those of private prison companies CCA and GEO Group aren’t so different on the surface - but inside this unappetizing letter-number salad, as much can be made of what’s going on behind our national system as can be made of what’s on the forms.

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The Private Prison Primer: Who regulates this? Part 1

The word cloud of prison privatization has two standouts: CCA and GEO. They stand on the stock exchange, some believe as a demonstration of nefarious American ties between justice and capitalism. But ticker symbols and federal filing one-liners are just formal summations of one side of the pipeline. The word cloud shows more dimly the individuals, whole communities, and states that are tethered to them.

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The Private Prison Primer: How is this even legal? Part 2

In the current system, there is nothing necessarily inherently illegal about the use of private prisons. So how are they even legal? In part, because - despite private-public turnover and speedily passed laws and court interpretations - the American people didn’t make a strong case. And future beneficiaries did.

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The Private Prison Primer: How is this even legal? Part 1

By BOP standards, private prisons are legally allowable. By their standards too, those setting policy for the public benefit are free to reap private benefits. Private prison operators, at least officially, won’t wear out their trial welcome until they’re officially proven failures. But with renewed scrutiny of privatized corrections coming to Congress, we’re forced to wonder: how is this even legal in the first place?

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Five concerns about private prisons from the ‘80s that are still valid today

Thirty years ago, when privatized prisons were first offered as a viable alternative to the failures of the public sector, concerns - ethical, financial, and practical - were raised regarding how the incarceration industry would be implemented. Now, three decades into this “experiment,” the for-profits are here to stay, and those concerns could not have been more prescient.

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Private Prisons control access to inmate grievances

A particularly unsettling exchange with a private prison’s legal team leads Beryl Lipton to reflect on her investigation so far, and what next year will bring.

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Outsourcing Exile: private prisons hold the keys to immigration reform

Millions of people and billions of dollars have passed through the ‪detainee‬-deportation machine, which has been an active aspect of U.S. ‪immigration‬ policy for over a century. But while immigration reform‬ will be hotly debated in the public sphere through the next federal election year, the infrastructure serving the system is largely private.

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“If we build it, they will come.” The private prison industry in California Part 2

California City, like the prison to match, was a town built on speculation. In the second half of this series, we look at how Corrections Corporation played the long game in CA and seems to be winning.

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How the private prison industry came to California Part 1

In this two part series, we look at how one community invited in private prison giant Corrections Corp - and why they can’t get them to leave.

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Five myths of the private prison industry

Beryl takes a look at the most common myths and misconceptions surrounding the incarceration industry, especially the big one - do they actually save money?

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How public records can shed light on private prisons

The details of the American prison system typically are, and have been, matters of public record - if one only knows how to ask. Even for-profit prisons, whose status as corporations make them notoriously exempt from public records laws, can’t hide everything they’ve got.

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Rural towns play an important role in facilitating federal private prisons

The “Justice is Not For Sale” Act was introduced into Congress yesterday, calling for the elimination of privately-run prison contracts at all levels of government. The system, however, is a knot of agreements and in many cases, the ones left holding the loose ends will be the rural towns and communities in which these private facilities have set up shop.

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Human Interest: The high cost of private prisons

Winn Correctional Center opened its doors 25 years ago as the first privately-run medium security prison in America. And, soon, its life cycle as one of the country’s oldest for-profit facilities will come to an end, when the handoff from Corrections Corporation of America to the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections is completed. For the first time in the facility’s history, a new ability to scrutinize its inner workings will exist.

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Vermont is outsourcing its inmates to private prisons in Michigan

A crime is committed in a state. The suspect’s tried, convicted, and sentenced there, and there’s a general expectation that then the punishment will play out close to home — unless it happens that one lives in a state like Vermont, with a correctional system so overcrowded that some prisoners must be shipped away to a facility somewhere else.

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The Private Prison Project, one year in

MuckRock launched the Private Prison Project exactly a year ago. It was the start of a look at the big players who stand the most to gain from America’s obsession with calling people problems and then locking those problems away. Beryl Lipton reflects on the hard-fought victories we’ve had so far, and what the future holds.

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The three corporations that dominate the private prison industry

Three private prison corporations own the field of for-profit corrections. Are they running their game in your state? If you live in the South, the answer is yes.

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Texas, the Private Prison state

Texas is currently home to thirty-five facilities operated by the “big three” private prison companies, doubling the number in the next closest contender, California.

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Special Incident Reports offer a rare glimpse into daily life inside a CCA private prison

In September, MuckRock requested Special Incident Reports regarding Lake Erie Correctional Institution, operated by private prison giant Corrections Corporation of America. What we received were fascinating snapshots of days rife with makeshift weapons, contraband cell phones, and drug use ranging from marijuana to heroin

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For Louisiana private prisons, lots of grievances but little detail

Winn Correctional Center, a Corrections Corporation of America facility in Louisiana, holds the dubious distinction of being the first privately-operated medium-security prison in the United States. It houses about 1,500 prisoners, which, coincidentally, is also about as many grievances it gets each year.

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Hiding things in plain sight at Queens Detention Facility

Public Advocate De Blasio blasted private prisons for their lack of transparency. Now what will Mayor De Blasio do about the one operating across the street from JFK?

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In New Mexico, private prisons supplements federal obligations with county contracts

When CCA first opened a prison in Estancia, home of the last hanging in New Mexico, the Detention Facility was responsibly for just under 300 offenders. Now it clocks in at over 900 inmates, over half the town’s population.

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Every contract the federal government has with the private prison industry

As part of MuckRock’s ongoing Private Prisons project, Freedom of Information Act requests have been submitted to federal agencies for every one of their private facilities. Track them via our interactive map, and if you follow them from their request page, you’ll be updated when as documents come in.

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In Florida, clear guidelines give private prisons priority

Do private prisons “cherry pick” inmates, leaving state Corrections departments saddled with offenders in need of more expensive care? While it’s not quite selecting from a line up, they do set the guidelines for who’s in or out.

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OSHA complaints show awful conditions inside private prisons … for the employees

MuckRock’s September request for complaints made to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) against Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) has so far yielded only four complete responses from OSHA’s ten regional offices. None of them mention interpersonal inmate issues but nonetheless they offer glimpses into what goes on within prison walls.

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Does your state have a deal with private prison giant Corrections Corp?

“Public-private partnerships” - established with local, state, and federal agencies - provide groups like Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) the financial incentives that contribute to mass incarceration in the United States. MuckRock has submitted requests for nearly every contract currently maintained between a government agency and CCA, and plotted them by facility on an interactive map.

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Months in, The Private Prison Project has uncovered thousands of docs related to the incarceration industry

This summer, MuckRock announced that it was beginning a longterm FOIA investigation into the shadowy space between the private prison industry and its government “partners,” who bankroll almost the entirety of this growing enterprise. After months of digging, the surface has barely been scratched.

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Lake Erie Correctional Institute’s switch to private ownership yields troubling results

When Corrections Corporation of America bought the Lake Erie Correctional Institution from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction in September 2011, Lake Erie became the first state prison to be sold to a private company. Just that August, the State’s Correctional Institution Inspection Committee had given the facility a positive review during its unannounced visit. By the next inspection, after a full year of CCA operation, the tone had changed.

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In private prisons, grievances go unread and unanswered

For prisoners in private facilities, internal control over the administrative grievance process stifles the concerns of a population already limited in mobility, legal options, and credible standing.

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Introducing The Private Prison Project

Right now, there are over 128,000 people on United States soil being held in privately-operated correctional facilities. Financially dependent on the government and hired to enforce the burden of public justice, these private prisons are nonetheless not subject to FOIA.

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