Privacy SOS

Private prisons immune from transparency laws? Not so fast

The government transparency and journalism outfit MuckRock is launching a project to free information from the grasp of the private prison industry. While they act in place of the state and incarcerate over one hundred thousand inmates—plus nearly half of all people in US immigration detention—private prisons are immune from the Freedom of Information Act.


“Secret prisons.” 

The term—which invokes overseas CIA detainment centers shrouded in dark, foreign lands—could be applied right here at home. Right now, there are over 128,000 people on United States soil being held in privately-operated correctional facilities. Financially dependent on the government and hired to enforce the burden of public justice, these private prisons are nonetheless not subject to FOIA. 

While private prisons may hold only a half of one percent of all incarcerated prisoners, the industry has a clear incentive to support policies that encourage the population swell, and they do. Private corporations have contributed to stricter drug laws, mandatory sentencing, and immigration policy, which in turn have all contributed to the rise of the prison population. Internally, cutting costs means cutting corners; egregious examples of negligence, abuse, and understaffing have gone years without punishment or effective resolution. And it’s hard to know what is going on.

In its quest to find out, MuckRock is filing FOIA and public records requests in every state that hosts private prisons, seeking contracts, promotional materials, monitoring reports, and private prison industry-funded studies.

When private companies or institutions act in the place of public entities, with taxpayer dollars, the public has a right to know what's going on. That's why the ACLU of Massachusetts filed suit against a regional SWAT team after it claimed immunity from open records law, citing its incorporation as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. And that's why MuckRock is seeking these documents about private prisons. Good for them.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.