March 24, 2011
Via The Real Cost of Prisons Blog
PORTLAND, OR – A federal judge today strongly rejected the U.S. government’s ongoing attempts to shroud its network of privatized immigrant prisons in a far-reaching veil of secrecy.
The ruling arises out of a lawsuit filed two years ago, seeking information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The plaintiff, Stephen Raher, sought documents concerning a series of contracts between the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and several private prison companies.
The government has repeatedly claimed that it does not have to release information showing how many prison beds it has contracted for, and how much it pays under the contracts. In addition, the government fought against releasing the proposals that bidders submitted when seeking the contracts. In November 2010, The GEO Group, the largest private prison operator in the world, intervened in the suit (with the government’s acquiescence), claiming that it wanted to protect its proprietary commercial information.
The BOP and GEO vigorously objected to the release of any information that would provide a meaningful picture of how the network of privately-run “criminal alien” prisons are run. “Our government is paying substantial amounts of money in exchange for services of questionable value,” said Raher. “The fact that the government does not want to allow public scrutiny of these transactions is an affront to the spirit of public disclosure embodied in FOIA.”
The ruling by Magistrate Judge Janice Stewart rejects most of the Bureau of Prison’s arguments, noting that the government had failed to provide evidence to support many of its claims. The court called the government’s justification for withholding portions of the contractors’ bid proposals “hopelessly vague” and characterized its description of some of the withheld information as “baffling.” The court also criticized GEO for advancing “meritless” arguments and relying on legal theories that are “nothing more than an unsupported conclusion.”
The court did reserve judgment on the question of whether contract prices must be released, saying that a trial is necessary on that issue. “There is still more work to be done in this case, and that work is extremely important,” said Raher. “I am confident that the government’s argument would not hold up at trial, and that the primary motivation of BOP and GEO is to avoid revealing the inflated prices paid under these contracts.”
As the court noted in its opinion, Raher has articulated a plausible theory that prison operators use the lucrative federal contracts to cross-subsidize money-losing contracts with state and local governments, thus allowing the companies to boast of inflated cost “savings” when lobbying state legislatures.
The case is Raher v. Federal Bureau of Prisons, U.S. District Court, District of Oregon, Case Number CV-09-526-ST. The court’s opinion is available at http://www.tidx.org/pdf/BOP_FOIA/SJ-Opinion-May2011.pdf