WASHINGTON, DC – Congressman Jamie Raskin (MD-08) and Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) today introduced legislation to require that all U.S. government agencies comply with Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests relating to private prisons, jails or detention facilities, including immigration detention facilities. This legislation, the Private Prison Information Act (PPIA), will improve transparency for all people detained in private facilities and represents an essential step forward in facilitating accountability throughout the American criminal justice system.
“Despite the fact that private, for-profit detention facilities receive federal funding, they are not subject to even the most basic transparency requirements of their public counterparts,” said Rep. Raskin. “I’m introducing the Private Prison Information Act to promote accountability in our justice system, shine a light on abuses taking place in private prisons and protect the rights of incarcerated people. Allowing the public to file Freedom of Information Act requests about private prisons, as they can with government-owned and -operated facilities, will educate the public about ongoing injustices in the criminal justice system and support President Biden’s ultimate mission to end all contracts with privately owned and operated detention facilities.”
“The operators of private prisons hide behind loopholes in the law when it comes to how they perform their job. If they continue to receive federal funds to house federal inmates and detainees, they must be held accountable to the same standards as our federal prisons,” said Senator Cardin. “Security breaches, overcrowding and misuse of funds were among the many reasons the President Biden called for an end to private prison contracts, but we are far from fulfilling this mandate. The need for accountability remains high.”
“The Freedom of Information Act is a critical tool to ensure transparency and accountability of our government,” said Eunice Cho, Senior Staff Attorney of the ACLU National Prison Project. “Despite recent reforms, private prison companies hold tens of thousands of prisoners, and 80 percent of immigrants in detention for the federal government nationwide. Yet these corporations can evade basic transparency requirements about the treatment of people in federal custody. The Private Prison Information Act will ensure that the public will have access to records necessary to hold them accountable.
“Private contractors reap massive awards from the incarceration of people in detention facilities across the country,” said Jesse Franzblau, Senior Policy Analyst with the National Immigrant Justice Center. “The private prison complex is plagued with secrecy that allows for misuse and waste of public resources with enormous human costs. Subjecting companies that profit off the detention business to stronger transparency requirements is critical in the broader efforts to end impunity for the gross rights abuses that are widespread throughout the detention system.”
“Despite their enormous cost to taxpayers and amid serious, longstanding concerns regarding their safety, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness, private prisons are currently exempt from information access laws like the Freedom of Information Act, leaving taxpayers completely in the dark and powerless to be informed and hold their government accountable for these contractors. The Private Prison Information Act would address these transparency loopholes and bring accountability mechanisms for privately operated facilities in line with their government-run counterparts. As long as our government continues to rely on profit-driven contractors to incarcerate and detain people, this legislation is urgently needed,” said Noah Bookbinder, president, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
The legislation is cosponsored by Reps. Suzanne Bonamici (OR-01), André Carson (IN-07), Hank Johnson (GA-04), Kweisi Mfume (MD-07), Eleanor Holmes Norton (DC-AL), Ilhan Omar (MN-05), David Scott (GA-13), Terri Sewell (AL-07), Rashida Tlaib (MI-12) and Bonnie Watson Coleman (NJ-12). Senate cosponsors include Senators Diane Feinstein (D-CA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Peter Welch (D-VT), Ed Markey (D-MA), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).
Private prisons, jails, and detention centers housed 15 percent of all federal inmates and about 79 percent of all immigration detainees in 2021. Operators of private prisons are paid by the federal government—the taxpayer—to house federal inmates, but their status as private entities allows them to avoid the reach of our public records laws, including FOIA. The Justice Department’s Inspector General has found that prisons run by private companies are substantially less safe and secure than those run by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.
In 2021, President Biden issued an historic executive order directing the Attorney General not to renew the Department of Justice’s contracts with privately operated criminal detention facilities. However, the PPIA remains essential to holding detention facilities accountable until this order is fully implemented and in case a future administration reverses course. Importantly, this bill also ensures that privately run immigration detention facilities that contract with the Department of Homeland Security are subject to FOIA.
This legislation is endorsed by a coalition of criminal justice and government accountability advocacy organizations including: the ACLU, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and the National Immigrant Justice Center.