WASHINGTON — Private prisons have been on the chopping block ever since the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General deemed private prisons less safe and effective than prisons run by the government in a report released last year. And now, almost 50 civil rights and criminal justice groups are taking a stance against them.
Currently, government-operated corrections facilities are required to comply with federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) standards that private prisons currently do not have to adhere to, even though about 17.8 percent of federal prisoners and 65 percent of immigration detainees are held in privately operated facilities, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. But that may soon change.
On July 12, about 50 civil rights and criminal justice groups, including the Human Rights Defense Center and the Coalition for Prisoners’ Rights, signed the Private Prison Information Act, otherwise known as H.R. 1980. Reintroduced by U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) earlier this year, the bill requires private prisons to comply with the same federal FOIA requirements for which similar government-owned corrections facilities are held.
The signed letter submitted to Rep. Jackson Lee stated, “The need for transparency and public accountability with respect to private prisons is especially important in light of a report released by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector
General (OIG) in August 2016. The report found that privately operated facilities housing federal prisoners for the BOP had higher average rates of contraband cell phones, tobacco and weapons; higher rates of prisoner-on-prisoner assaults, prisoner-on-staff assaults and uses of force; and more lockdowns, among other findings.”
At the time the OIG released the report, Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates instructed Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) officials to either decline or renew contracts with private prison operators when they expire. Her memo was since rescinded by Attorney General Sessions earlier this year, even though he stated that the OIG report findings indicate a need for greater oversight and transparency at privately operated facilities.
As the debate over private prisons continues, the question from the signed letter remains unanswered: “Why should private prisons that house federal prisoners be any less accountable to the public than the Bureau of Prisons or Immigration and Customs Enforcement?”