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Proposed legislation that would apply existing public records laws to all prisons housing federal inmates was discussed during a congressional briefing on Monday.
The bill, H.R. 2450, was crafted to extend the Freedom of Information Act to private prisons that contract with government agencies. If the bill is passed, publicly financed private prisons, which house more than 100,000 federal inmates, would be subject to the same reporting standards as the Bureau of Prisons.
The companies that run private prisons say they are not required to disclose basic information about the facilities or the inmates -- except for reports issued upon an inmate's death -- under existing FOIA law because while they receive taxpayer money, they are not public agencies. A panel of specialists at the briefing spoke about the need for more transparency.
"If they do answer the requests, all the documents are redacted and they cite 'trade secrets' as the reason they can't disclose," said Tom Barry, senior analyst at the Center for International Policy, of his experiences getting information about inmates in private facilities from the Bureau of Prisons.
David Shapiro, an attorney for the National Prison Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, put the scope of the issue in perspective, noting "over 17 percent of the prisoners we represent are in for-profit prisons."