Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Private prisons shouldn't be able to deny freedom of information requests, journalism prof says

Privately operated prisons have become common in rural areas, especially those desperate for jobs, but often deny Freedom of Information requests, claiming they should be exempt because they are private entities, journalism professor Alexa Capeloto writes for The Crime Report, published by the John Jay College at the City University of New York, where she works.

Incarceration is a vital government function, Capeloto writes, but private prisons keep out of reach such useful records as staffing levels, budgets, rates of violence, prisoner demographics, security measures and health care.

Eight percent of prisoners and 49 percent of immigrant detainees were held in privately run centers in the U.S., and the number has risen 1,600 percent from 1990 to 2009, Capeloto reports. The 137 facilities are run by the Corrections Corporation of America, the GEO Group Inc. and the Management and Training Corporation.

"CCA, the largest among them, generated nearly $1.7 billion in revenue and netted a $300 million profit in 2013," Capeloto writes. "Government contracts, funded by taxpayer dollars, form the vast majority of this revenue."

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) introduced a bill to require these facilities to release more information, but the bill is the sixth of its kind that Democrats have introduced since 2005, and it isn't likely to go anywhere, Capeloto writes. In most states, no legislation requires private prisons to share their records, and "This failure has left courts to do the heavy lifting when private contractors deny FOI requests to services once handled by government."

Capeloto says an update of freedom-of-information laws is needed because privatization has changed the boundaries between public and private. Until that happens, the issue should be taken to the courts, she argues.

CAA spokesman Steve Owen told the weekly Vermont newspaper Seven Days that "transparency is a critical part of the relationships we have with our government partners and the taxpayers they serve. We comply with all applicable open records laws and share information freely with our government partners." Capeloto writes that the "applicable laws" need to erase any room for doubt. (Read more)

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