Private prison companies that receive federal funding currently claim they are exempt from Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests due to a loophole in the current law. The Private Prison Information Act of 2017 (S. 1728) recently introduced by Sen. Ben Cardin would ensure that non-federally run prisons are held to the same standard of information sharing and record keeping as federal detention facilities. The essence of the bill says:
(a) IN GENERAL.—A record relating to a non-Federal prison, correctional, or detention facility shall be—
(1) considered an agency record for purposes of section 552(f)(2) of title 5, United States Code, whether in the possession of an applicable entity or a covered agency; and
(2) subject to section 552 of title 5, United States Code (commonly known as the ‘‘Freedom of 13 Information Act’’), to the same extent as if the record was maintained by an agency operating a Federal prison, correctional, or detention facility.
(b) WITHHOLDING OF INFORMATION.—A covered agency may not withhold information that would otherwise be required to be disclosed under subsection (a) unless—
(1) the covered agency, based on the independent assessment of the covered agency, reasonably foresees that disclosure of the information would cause specific identifiable harm to an interest protected by an exemption from disclosure under section 552(b) of title 5, United States Code; or
(2) disclosure of the information is prohibited by law.
(c) FORMAT OF RECORDS.—An applicable entity shall maintain records relating to a non-Federal prison, correctional, or detention facility in formats that are readily reproducible and reasonably searchable by the covered agency that contracts with or provides funds to the applicable entity to incarcerate or detain Federal prisoners or detainees in the non-Federal prison, correctional, or detention facility.
The bill has been endorsed by major organizations committed to government openness and accountability, civil liberties, human rights, and civil rights, including Government Information Watch. In a letter to senators, the groups write that “[t]he Department of Justice Inspector General has found that federal prisons run by private companies are substantially less safe and secure than ones run by the Bureau of Prisons … the public is largely in the dark with regard to the functioning of the many of this country’s private prisons, and the industry operates with a lack of oversight and accountability mechanisms. This dynamic hinders the ability of the government and public to ensure private prison companies are living up to their contractual obligations and not wasting taxpayer dollars.”