MuckRock’s “Private Prison Project” and the Need for Transparency

MuckRock announces "Private Prison Project." Here's why it's so badly needed.

MuckRock announces “Private Prison Project.” Here’s why it’s so badly needed.

Last week, Muckrock.com announced it was launching the Private Prison Project: a long-term investigation of the use of for-profit prison companies to accommodate America’s exploding incarceration rate.

According to the website, which helps the public through the process of filing records requests to government agencies, the first step of the Private Prison Project will be to focus on the procurement and execution of private prison contracts:

We’re beginning our inquiry by requesting the contracts that every state has with private correctional prisons and the required corresponding contract monitoring reports. New Mexico has successfully issued fines due to breaches of contract, and it’s likely many others can do the same. We’re after the marketing materials these companies provided and the bids they placed; a questionable study done by Temple University, in part founded by the private prison corporations the study supports, argues that competition between these corporations is a good thing, but monopolies and single bid contracts are not uncommon.

Public disclosure is not just a powerful tool for reform, it’s an essential democratic right that applies to private prison contractors as much as it does the government that hired them to take over some of their work. Incarceration is inherently the duty of government, and just as we expect transparency in government, we should expect transparency from contractors that use taxpayer money to provide identical functions to that government.

If MuckRock is successful, public disclosure would remove the shroud of secrecy that allows private prisons to avoid public scrutiny and resist reform.

PRIVATE PRISONS ARE SECRET PRISONS

Private prisons have experienced explosive growth over the past decade. Between 2002 and 2009, private prison populations increased by 37%. As of 2012, private prisons housed over 128,000 inmates at facilities across the country, and that number continues to grow.

But just like private military contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan enjoyed secrecy via FOIA exemptions, private prisons use FOIA’s 4th exemption to keep their records hidden from public. (Side-note: companies that contract with private prisons for inmate labor also have enjoyed some protection from disclosure under FOIA’s 5th exemption – the same used by military contractors).

Federal, state and local government agencies justify these contracts with private prison companies like Corrections Corp. of America (CCA) and the Management & Training Corporation (MTC) as ‘cost-saving and efficiency’ measures. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the prevailing belief is that the private sector can better manage the rising costs of incarceration.

If that’s all true, why not share the arrangements and results from this prison privatization experiment with the public?

(DOING) TIME IS MONEY

It may be unclear whether prison privatization actually saves any money, but it’s crystal clear that it makes the industry a ton of money.

According to the ACLU:  “In 2010, the two largest private prison companies alone received nearly $3 billion dollars in revenue, and their top executives, according to one source, each received annual compensation packages worth well over $3 million.”

So what do they do with all that money? Without public records, it’s hard to say. But we can talk about what we do know, and things do not look good through the tiny keyhole view of private prisons that does exist. Like a lot of corporations today, one way they spent it is on politics: industry lobbying expenses increase by 165% between 2002 and 2009.

To be more specific, here’s an example of those lobbying dollars at work: in 2009/10, CCA gave $100,000 to CA Governor Schwarzeneggar’s Budget Reform Now PAC. A year later, the Governator sent 2,336 new prisoners out of state to CCA prisons in Arizona. Arizona was paying CCA $65.43 a day, per inmate (in 2012, at least). Assuming all 2,336 prisoners stayed for only 1 week at CCA’s prisons in Arizona, and assuming California paid CCA a similar per-inmate rate, that would mean an increase in payments from the state of $1,070,191.36, or a $970,191.36 ROI.

There’s also the case of Tennessee, home to CCA headquarters and Senator Lamar Alexander, who not only has investments in the industry (and therefor ostensibly shares their aspirations for growth) but is also the all-time top recipient of CCA donations.

Beyond lobbying, through the tiny keyhole view we have, we know they don’t spend it on personnel, as they have come under fire for understaffing and under-training medical and security staff. They don’t use it to pay prison laborers a fare wage, instead offering them almost nothing for their work (which includes tasks like cleaning up the BP oil spill for nearly nothing). And they don’t use it to maintain and improve their facilities, as evidenced by reports of subhuman conditions.

We won’t have a full picture of the state of private prisons and the extent to which they need reform until we gain access to their contracts and records. It’s even more alarming that, without access to their records, there is still an abundance of reports and studies indicating waste, fraud and abuse by private prison contractors that underscores the urgent need for reform.

PATHS TO REFORM

It certainly won’t be easy to get private prisons to disclose information unwillingly, but it’s a fight that needs to happen, and there are currently two active ways to get there: through the courts and through Congress. Both will be difficult and slow-going, but there have been promising developments in recent years.

Prison Legal News is currently engaged in three lawsuits against CCA for access to their records that could hopefully establish precedent in the courts: one in Tennessee, one in Texas, and one in Vermont. The Tennessee lawsuit has had some success, compelling CCA to release some (but not all) documents, including contracts, and the cases in Texas and Vermont are showing some promise. In January, advocates scored a key victory when a Vermont judge denied CCA’s motion to dismiss their public records case with PLN.

There is also the Private Prison Information Act: a bill which would end their exemption under FOIA and open up private corrections companies to records requests from the public. The bill has failed to make it out of committee, but support for this legislation has grown slowly over the years. PLN organized a letter with over 30 other advocacy groups (including NAACP, ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center) urging Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee to reintroduce the bill in the (current) 113th Congress. She has yet to heed that call, but this fight is far from over.

It will take committed struggles like these to chip away at the private prison industry’s perceived privilege of secrecy, but with strong generational trends towards opposing the drug war and the system of mass incarceration it supports, there is hope. I’m very glad to see MuckRock take on this project now and I hope other advocates join them in their fight.

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