Friday, January 29, 2010

Recommendations to Take Private Prisons Out of the Shadows

(Note: These are recommendations aimed at ensuring that both immigrant prisons and immigrants no longer remain in the shadows of our country's politics and economy. They are taken from testimony prepared for a Jan. 25 congressional briefing on a bill to make private prisons subject to Freedom of Information Act requests. For the entire policy report see: )

Recommended Solutions

Reforms to address the lack of accountability and transparency that is endemic to the prison outsourcing system include:

* Support H.R. 2450 to extend the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to all federally contracted prisons and detention centers. The details and reports of operations of prisons and detention centers that rely totally on federal contracts should be open to FOIA requests. If these firms find that onerous or intrusive, they can decide not to renew their contracts.

* Insist that the Office of Inspector General of DOJ undertake an examination of the transparency problem—generalized congressional, public, and media inability to secure nonproprietary information about the management, operations, and conditions of the BOP and USMS prisons and detention centers.

* Promulgate binding minimum standards for federal detention facilities, and immediately ensure that USMS and ICE detention centers comply with the existing and nonbinding standards.

* Eliminate the federal tax-exempt provision for municipal bonds financing prison construction that are not reviewed and approved by voters.

* The DOJ's Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office should study the rationale and the legality of the BOP prisons and USMS detention centers designed solely for immigrants. This segregation of immigrants within the criminal justice system raises serious issues of unequal treatment, including grossly inadequate medical care, routine solitary confinement, difficult access to lawyers and family, and little federal oversight.

*End the current practice of continuing and renewing prison contracts with irresponsible, negligent, and abusive contractors. Instead, BOP, ICE, and USMS should immediately terminate federal contracts and IGAs with private firms and government entities that intentionally overcharge the government or that grossly or repeatedly fail to meet the conditions of these federal contracts and agreements for prison and detention services.

*Given new revelations about the continuing pattern of deaths and the absence of proper medical care of immigrant detainees in privately operated ICE detention centers, Congress and the administration should launch investigations to review the number of possibly wrongful deaths of legal and illegal immigrants held in the immigrant-only USMS and BOP correctional facilities.

Such reforms would constitute important first steps in improving accountability and transparency in federally contracted private prisons. However, the underlying, causal problem is the federal government's unwillingness to assume full and direct responsibility for the consequences of its enforcement and sentencing policies. 

The criminal justice and immigration systems are both badly broken and immensely costly, having resulted in the mass incarceration of nonviolent citizen and noncitizens.

Structural reforms are urgently needed that will substantially reduce the numbers of citizens and immigrants that are relegated to expensive and ineffective lock-ups and that will give more consideration to alternatives to detention, community supervision, and the termination of prison sentences for many nonviolent offenses, particularly drug law and immigration violations.

Our country cannot afford the high financial, social, and moral price of mass incarceration and mass detention. What is more, imprisonment and detention are inherently governmental responsibilities, which should not be outsourced to private firms and local governments that view criminal and immigration law violators primarily as a source of profit and revenue.

Photo/Tom Barry: Protest vigil in Pecos, Texas on anniversary of death in solitary confinement of Jesus Manuel Galindo in county-owned immigrant prison.)

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