Despite receiving millions in taxpayer money and performing the same functions as government facilities, private detention facilities are not held to the same standards of transparency and accountability as their government counterparts. This gross oversight has allowed private prisons to operate largely in the dark, away from the scrutiny of the public. This directly contradicts the spirit and intent of the Freedom of Information Act, which grants Americans the ability to obtain information about government activities, regardless of whether government agencies or private contractors carry out those actions..
As allegations of abuse, inhumane conditions and fatalities in private prisons continue to dominate headlines, it’s clear that more is required than President Biden’s executive order phasing out the use of private prisons. For example, GEO Group and CoreCivic, two of the largest private prison companies, won contracts from ICE worth about $1.3 billion in just one year, despite hundreds of allegations of sexual assault, physical force and fatalities in their facilities.
To that end, CREW submitted testimony to the House Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related agencies, recommending Congress include FOIA-related text in the Fiscal Year 2023 Appropriations Bill, making private prisons subject to the same disclosure laws as their federally-run peers. Congress is well within its powers to impose transparency requirements on federal agencies and in the case of ICE and the private detention facilities they use, it should be considered both necessary and prudent. The cost-efficiency, health and safety conditions and quality of care provided at federally funded, privately operated detention facilities can only be addressed with access to key data that would allow Americans to shine a light on private detention centers and prisons.
Even when private contractors take on the functions of a government agency, the agency must remain the entity responsible for oversight and accountability. If the federal agency fails in this respect as ICE has, then Congress must assume the mantle of responsibility. Congress must include legislation that would require these companies to comply with FOIA requests and make them accountable to both the government and the people.