Letter from Pelican Bay Prisoner Representatives to Members of the California State Assembly & Senate

LETTER FROM PELICAN BAY PRISONER REPRESENTATIVES
TO MEMBERS OF THE CALIFORNIA STATE ASSEMBLY & SENATE

Original signed letter.

Todd Ashker – CDCR # C58191
Arturo Castellano – CDCR # C17275
Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa R.N. Dewberry – CDCR # C35671
Antonio Guillen – CDCR # P81948

May 1, 2014

Dear Members of the California State Assembly and Senate:

We are writing to offer our position on the two bills pending before the Assembly and the
Senate (SB 892 and AB 1652) dealing with the solitary confinement and gang validation policies
of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).

We are California inmates who have been in solitary confinement for long periods of time, based on validation as alleged associates and members of prison gangs, rather than based on violent behavior. We undertook hunger strikes in 2011 and in 2013 in opposition of the CDCR’s solitary confinement and gang validation practices as well as the inhumane conditions of CDCR’s Security Housing Units (SHUs). Together with thousands of inmates, we expressed
the following five core demands:

1) Individual accountability, rather than group punishment, indefinite SHU status, and restricted privileges;

2) Abolish debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria;

3) Comply with U.S. Commission 2006 Recommendations regarding an end to long-
term solitary confinement;

4) Provide adequate food; and,

5) Expand and provide constructive programming and privileges for indefinite SHU status inmates.

Having carefully reviewed and considered Assembly Bill 1652, introduced by Assembly member Tom Ammiano on February 11, 2014 as amended on April 3, 2014, and Senate Bill 892, introduced by Senate member Loni Hancock on January 13, 2014, as amended on March 18 and April 2, we wish to offer the following comments:

I. Discussion of Ammiano AB 1652:

AB 1652 addresses the very narrow but critical issue of eliminating CDCR’s policy of placing prisoners in solitary confinement for gang validation, rather than for commission of a serious offense. We support AB 1652. At the same time, we recommend that the bill be amended to include the following three additional provisions:

a. During assessment for SHU placement, the use of testimony (whether or not confidential) of an in-custody informant should be corroborated by an independent source!before being

[Letter to CA State Assembly and Senate
May 1, 2014 – page 2]

relied upon to place someone in a SHU. Corroboration cannot be based upon the testimony of another in-custody informant unless such in-custody informant obtained the information independently from the first in-custody informant and the information is not based on hearsay. This is essentially the same principle now applied in criminal court cases since 2011 (see Cal. Penal Code §1111.5).

b. An attorney-advocate should be made available (at no cost to the State) to inmates facing a sentence of more than 30 days in a SHU.

c. AB 1652 should implement provisions for increased oversight, studies, data collection, and reporting back to the Legislature on the SHU classification process, the mental and physical wellbeing of inmates in SHUs, and the reasons why SHU inmates are denied re-entry into the general population. Senate member Hancock’s SB 892 contains these provisions, which we recommend be included in AB 1652. Collecting and considering this data can lay the foundation for a future more comprehensive legislative evaluation of solitary confinement practices in California.

II. Discussion of Hancock SB 892:

Although SB 892 appears to seek to achieve comprehensive CDCR reform on the issue of solitary confinement, there are several provisions of the bill that will adopt inhumane and widely condemned practices into state law. We will only support SB 892 if it is amended to include
three critically important items:

a. The bill should incorporate the language of AB 1652 (or similar language) which eliminates the use of gang validation and minor rule violations as a justification for placing inmates in SHUs. As it stands currently, SB 892 does not eliminate SHU assignment for mere gang association and it does not eliminate indeterminate SHU terms.

This is a critical issue and one of our core demands. The nationwide trend is clearly not to place prisoners in segregated housing units for alleged gang association without accompanying serious rule violations. Numerous states have moved in this direction for public safety reasons, for humane reasons, and to cut costs. California should not move in the opposite direction.

b. As mentioned above, we recommend that language be added so that during assessment for SHU placement, the use of testimony (whether or not confidential) of an in-custody informant should be corroborated by an independent source!before being relied upon to place someone in a SHU. Corroboration cannot be based upon the testimony of another in-custody informant unless such in-custody informant obtained the information independently from the first in-custody informant and the information is not based on hearsay. This is essentially the same principle now applied in criminal court cases since 2011 (see Cal. Penal Code §1111.5).

[Letter to CA State Assembly and Senate
May 1, 2014 page 3]

c. As mentioned above, we recommend that language be added so that an attorney-advocate
should be made available (at no cost too the State) to inmates facing a sentence of more than 30 days in a SHU.

We do not believe that the range of provisions in SB 892 related to review by the Office of the Inspector General of cases in which SHU placement is based on the testimony of a confidential informant, the appointment of ombudsmen, the requirement for a daily face-to-face encounter with CDCR employees, the appointment of an “advocate” for an inmate being processed for SHU placement, or the Step Down Program in the bill will make any measurable difference in CDCR solitary confinement practices. The Inspector General is unlikely based upon review of a file to reverse decisions based on confidential informants. Ombudsmen will be of little value as long as inmates can be placed in SHUs for alleged gang association when they have engaged in no wrong-doing. “Face-to-face” encounters already happen almost every day when our food is served or a psych tech walks past our cells. Allowing an “advocate” to assist in the SHU assignment process will mean assignment of a guard who could care less about the result. And the proposed step-down program focuses on forcing prisoners to disavow alleged gang association or activities rather than on a behavior-based model considering whether the prisoner has violated rules while in the SHU. Despite these misguided and costly provisions in SB 892, we would support the bill if it is amended to include the provisions identified above.

However, the narrower and more focused (and less costly) AB 1652, particularly if amended as suggested above, would far better serve the public safety, prison security, and the humane treatment of prisoners. It’s a first but critically important step in the direction of a rational and humane policy. Further legislation could be considered in the next legislative session after CDCR data is collected by the legislature. Thank you for considering our comments and suggestions.

Sincerely,

Todd Ashker

Arturo Castellano

Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa R.N. Dewberry

Antonio Guillen

This letter was written after these 4 representatives of prisoners at Pelican Bay had met with the Center for Human Rights, which emailed it to us. “As you may know, we’ve been working with the four Pelican Bay hunger strike reps to get their united position on the two bills pending in the CA Senate and Assembly on solitary confinement.”

(Also posted on SF Bay View)

Calling for ABOLITION of solitary confinement

This was reblogged from the SF Bay View, March 5th, 2014
Written by Denise Mewbourne

For a little over a year I’ve had the great good fortune to be a participant in the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity (PHSS) coalition’s Human Rights Pen Pal program. Through this program I’ve been corresponding with several activists inside the SHUs, including several in the New Afrikan Revolutionary Nationalist Think Tanks. It’s changed my outlook on life in a big way, to say the least.

As a hunger strike supporter on the outside (since 2011) who has never been incarcerated, I had very little understanding of the ongoing cruelty, dehumanization and torture that goes on in the California prison system. I know I will never fully understand what it means to endure that – unless I’m forced to – and I’m still regularly shocked when I hear of new and different atrocities from both incarcerated people and prison survivors.

What I do know is how much respect and admiration I have for the people I write to, the organizers and participants in the peaceful protests, whose very bodies are the battlefield – and who have the strength and strategic intelligence to meet the oppressors on that battlefield with a series of hunger strikes.

Read the rest here

Amnesty International: USA: California prison authorities ‘toying with the lives’ of inmates on hunger strike

From: Amnesty International, August 30th 2013:
The refusal by California’s prison authorities to explore options to resolve the hunger strike crisis in the state’s high security units is a dangerous move that could lead to the deaths of inmates in their custody, Amnesty International said.
More than 30,000 prisoners joined a hunger strike last July over inhumane detention conditions in California’s security housing units (SHUs). More than 70 are still refusing food.
“It’s nothing short of appalling that instead of dealing with the complaints, California’s prison authorities have chosen to threaten inmates with force-feeding and disciplinary measures, and have moved some to other facilities,” said Tessa Murphy, Campaigner on the USA at Amnesty International.
“No one should be punished for exercising the right to peaceful protest. California prison authorities must stop toying with people’s lives and meet with the mediation team to begin a meaningful process of negotiation.”
Amnesty International has also received reports that some of those on hunger strike have been denied medical care.
This week, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) published a press release saying that it had addressed some of the inmates’ demands.
“Recent proposals by California’s prison authorities do not go far enough to address the inhumanity that permeates many aspects of the security housing units, including lengthy periods during which inmates are held in isolation and excessively harsh conditions of confinement including lack of social contact and programming,” said Tessa Murphy.
“The rehabilitation of prisoners is absolutely essential for their positive reintegration into society at the end of their sentence.”
Amnesty International is calling on CDCR to reduce the length of the step down programme and to make meaningful changes to the isolation units, particularly in Pelican Bay prison, with an emphasis on increased social contact and rehabilitation.
On 19 August, a federal court issued a decision that would allow the state to force-feed hunger strikers “at risk of near-death or great bodily injury”. The court also ruled that the state may ignore “do not resuscitate” directives if they were signed for the purpose of the hunger strike, or if the state believes they were achieved through coercion.
The force feeding of mentally competent hungers strikers is contrary to medical ethics and breaches their right to freedom of expression.

Why I joined the multi-racial, multi–regional Human Rights Movement to challenge torture in the Pelican Bay SHU

From: SF Bay View
August 29, 2013

by Antonio Guillen, Pelican Bay SHU Short Corridor Collective

I’ve been asked several times how it was possible that rivals from different racial and/or regional groups were able to see past differences and come together to form the Human Rights Movement. The Human Rights Movement is a concerted effort to end long term solitary confinement and make better the living conditions in all SHU and Ad Seg housing facilities across the state of California and the nation as a whole!

Prominently displayed at recent hunger strike support rallies, such as this one outside Corcoran State Prison on July 13, are photos of Antonio Guillen, one of the four main representatives among the Pelican Bay Short Corridor Collective and the author of this statement. – Photo: Malaika Kambon
I will try my best to explain how it was possible for me to get past old attitudes and mindsets in hopes of reaching a better tomorrow. I do understand that others, pushing right alongside of me, may have experienced it differently and cut their own path to reach this point in their lives, but this is how I was able to get there.
Now, before I share my venture I would like to take a moment to say that this Human Rights Movement has always been meant to be something positive, inspiring and groundbreaking for the betterment of all people on both sides of the wall. I did not expect such heated opposition – aside from CDCR – or the level of personal attacks on prisoner representatives and our outside support systems.

Our efforts and motivations have been demeaned, criticized and outrageously misconstrued. But, as I learned long ago, “If the powerful cannot meet you on the merits of your claims, then they will have no other option than to attack you on your person.”

My story

When I came to prison I was young and brought with me the attitudes and mindsets that were shaped and hardened by the years of gangbanging in the streets of San Jose and the several years spent in the California Youth Authority. Much like a blacksmith will pound his hammer repeatedly against an anvil to mold and shape a piece of iron into an object of symbol and strength, so too were my beliefs.

Once in the yard, in prison, I soon realized that life here at its core was no different from any other hostile environment I had experienced. And to survive I relied on the tenet I found to be true and have yet to fail me: Keep quiet, identify the danger and stand up when challenged.

Most of the traditional groups were separated by invisible boundaries that acted as territorial borders. Although there were those who maintained lines of communication between the groups for diplomatic reasons, there was no real and constructive interaction between the groups.

When I arrived to Administrative Segregation (Ad Seg) and then the Security Housing Unit (SHU), those same invisible boundaries between the groups existed, albeit in a different way due to the design of the Ad Seg and SHU facilities, but existed nonetheless. In fact, to some extent they appeared to be more prominent because of the anger, frustration and despair that modern day dungeons tend to induce within the human psyche.

Much like any other torture chamber, Pelican Bay State Prison (PBSP) SHU was designed to break the mind and spirit of those it had captured. The powers that be, which include the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), wanted nothing more than a docile and submissive creature to be pushed around and manipulated.

And unfortunately in most cases it did exactly that, causing a multitude to suffer new emotional and physical damages – the mentally ill to have their conditions exacerbated. And of course, let’s not forget those who were COERCED into taking part in the infamous debriefing program.

Much like any other torture chamber, Pelican Bay State Prison (PBSP) SHU was designed to break the mind and spirit of those it had captured.

In an effort to achieve the intended purposes of PBSP SHU, which is to create an environment that discourages a man’s ability and/or desire to socialize with other human beings, the powers that be took the following steps:

A) Modeled the design of PBSP SHU on out-of-state SHUs that divided each housing unit into six pods of eight men each;

B) Implemented local operations procedures that prohibit a prisoner from stopping at another prisoner’s cell to converse or pass items from one cell to the next (PBSP O.P.);

C) Utilized a CDCR regulation to prohibit a prisoner from conversing with another prisoner in a different pod (CCR Title 15, Section 3005 Conduct, Subsection (b) Obeying Orders);

D) Utilized practices used to maintain single cell occupation in order to reduce the head count per each pod, thus limiting the number of persons one has access to converse with, and;

E) Intentionally assigned rival prisoners from different races and/or regional groups to a pod. The idea being, if a pod were populated with those who didn’t socialize with each other to begin with, then this would further serve the intended purpose of discouraging their ability and/or desire to socialize.

Now let me be clear, when I speak on men’s ability and/or desire to socialize with other human beings, I am not referring to common tier courtesies such as letting your neighbor know whether or not you’re attending yard that day – just in case you pass on yard and his time slot gets pushed up. But rather I’m referring to one’s ability and/or desire to engage in deep, meaningful and stimulating conversation about similar interests – family, politics, sports, religion etc. – the sharing and debating of thoughts and ideas, and offering moral support in times of personal loss or tragedy. All of the things that make human beings, human beings.

In the beginning this approach worked surprisingly well, and to this day, many if not all of these policies and practices remain intact and in full effect. What the powers that be failed to realize, however, is that the mind and spirit of the human being can often times prove to be stronger and more resilient than concrete and steel. Several years after my arrival to PBSP SHU, I noticed that the attitudes and mindsets of many men who have long been a part of everyday life started to shift, including mine, in a monumental way!

Being enclosed in such a small environment – a pod of eight cells – where at any given time a man only has maybe seven other people in his immediate surroundings for many years, one cannot help but to get to know his neighbors. Whether this is motivated by survival instinct or because he is familiar with the next man from a different prison or if it is just basic human nature to reach out to another human being, I cannot say for sure. Maybe it’s a combination of all or something entirely different.

I’m referring to one’s ability and/or desire to engage in deep, meaningful and stimulating conversation about similar interests – family, politics, sports, religion etc. – the sharing and debating of thoughts and ideas, and offering moral support in times of personal loss or tragedy. All of the things that make human beings, human beings.

All I know is that, in spite of CDCR policy or procedure, people, regardless of their race, ideologies or regional background, gradually started to socialize with one another.

At first it seemed to start off with common tier courtesies, then to casual conversations which lead to more in depth discussions about a variety of topics. This allowed each of us to gain a better understanding of the next man – who he was, the things he cared about or believed in and his way of thinking. At least for me, I soon realized that many of these men were no different from who I am. We shared the same interests and things of importance, and some of us even thought along the same lines.

As time went by, we soon started to share reading materials – books, magazines, newspapers etc. – and providing legal assistance – filing prisoner grievances and court litigation. And for those men who didn’t have the means to purchase items from the prison commissary – writing materials, personal hygiene, food, beverages – the rest of the pod would get together and help out when we could.

This aid would also extend to yearly packages, and often men asked their families to send a package to someone in need. And, when we were able to several years ago, if one was fortunate enough to purchase a new appliance – TV or radio – he would often donate his old appliance to someone who didn’t have one.

Of course this didn’t work for everyone – there being some who are naturally reclusive and tend to keep to themselves and others whose suffering has affected them differently, possibly more severely than the rest of us, and have, by choice or otherwise, withdrawn from reality. But for those of us who were able and willing, we gradually came together in much the same way as a growing community would. We formed strong connections and understandings and looked out for each other.

Now this is not to say that everything has been sunshine and roses since then. There are still many negative forces that we routinely contend with – namely, those that have led to the evolution of these hunger strikes. It was, however, the courage and determination of the men who chose to stand up to the CDCR and challenge the torturous intent for PBSP SHU on all fronts – but specifically in the area of men’s ability and/or desire to socialize – that ultimately forged strong and respectful relationships between men of different races and regional backgrounds that in turn allowed many of us to come together and bring this Human Rights Movement!

I hope this has shed some light on the question at hand. But, more importantly, I hope that I was able to clearly communicate my thoughts and experience. Power to the people!

Antonio Guillen is one of four main hunger strike volunteer prisoner representatives. Send our brother some love and light: Antonio Guillen, P-81948, P.O. Box 7500, Crescent City CA 95532. This statement was written on Aug. 26, 2013, Day 50 of the hunger strike.

Prisoner Undocumented Immigrants…The Nightmare of the American Dream

This letter was received, typed and emailed to CaliforniaPrisonWatch.org amongst its recipients, and is being posted here and possibly elsewhere:

By Juan Carlos Molina
CSP-Corcoran-SHU

I would like to take this moment to possibly enlighten you to a situation we as Hispanic Mexican Nationals would like to share with all of you. Our hope is to create discussion and ultimately change this sad reality. Due to being such a small population in California prisons, the majority do not understand or even realize (much less consider). Hopefully with this essay I’m able to express correctly, sufficiently, and effectively these little known conditions and bring attention to this issue. We suffer and struggle daily in a foreign land, where many of us do not even write, understand, or speak English.

This struggle not only involves Mexican Nationals in California, but also all undocumented immigrants in prison around this nation. Some of us are here doing life terms with no family or friends support (mentally, emotionally, economically, physically, etc.), the most basic of human conditions to be social. Think about this for a minute. For family members to visit us from Mexico requires an incredible amount of patience and hard work, and huge obstacles at the US-MEXICO border. 

For example, on my situation I haven’t seen my father, brothers, and some of my sisters since 1996. Why??-because my family couldn’t process the visas for them and couldn’t afford to pay the expenses to travel. In the past, I used to see my mother once a year. My family had to work and save money for my elderly mother to be able to come visit me just one time every year. Unfortunately, since 2007, my family couldn’t afford it anymore. So I haven’t seen the rest of my family since 1996, which is 14 years total and counting. 

This is just my example. Many more undocumented immigrants/Hispanics in prison suffer the same fate. Under life terms and some of us validated in the Security Housing Units (SHU), we may very well never see or hug our immediate family and friends. Imagine the suffering and heartache we endure??? Living life sentences inside ‘the grey box’ (SHU), under this daily struggle, under this psychological and physical torture 23 hours a day we wait to hear and receive news from our family back home.

Many of us came to the U.S. from very rural towns with little or no education and severely economically challenged areas in Mexico. As we can agree, many who come to the U.S. do so for the ‘American Dream’: Land of opportunity and a better way of life. A sacrifice for ourselves and our families back home. 

Due to having to put education on hold early in our youth to work and contribute to our family’s welfare, ultimately basic reading and writing much time is lost and thousands of us risk our lives and cross the border (breaking U.S. laws) and some of those thousands end up in prisons, detention centers, and jails across the nation. Fewer still get life terms that cuts off communication with family and limits it to phone calls (when rare monetary ability allows a phone call home) and letters (for those who can read and write).

This is some of what we endure and struggle with, maintaining communication: hope of seeing, speaking to, hearing the familiar voices, or hugging a family member one more time. Whatever the reason or situation, we as prisoners got caught up in the huge justice system of this mighty and powerful nation. Illiteracy, sadly, caused some to sing plea agreements for life terms unknowingly and unintelligibly and so, here we are, for life we exist… in prisons far away from family and friends back home in our country of origin. Not knowing how their lives are going (basic social interaction in an advanced, immediate access, social technical world) for years on end sometimes, is an exhausting struggle we endure. 
Not knowing English accentuates this lonely existence. We suffer alone, unable to afford even toothpaste or deodorant, indigent with no outside support.

Accordingly, I’ll now share the heavier and further sad facts affecting us undocumented immigrants (Mexican national prisoner class) in California prisons. Prison officials incorrectly clam us as gang-related, even though we (historically) no not involve ourselves with any gangs. 

Because we socialize with other Hispanics who speak our own language, we are now getting validated and segregated as participants or associating with prison gangs incorrectly by CDCR. As we all know, this is an extremely difficult and complicated situation as there is an already limited ability to challenge the validation and segregation or understand the already poorly worded rules and regulations.

Because we are only a few of the thousands validated and segregated we are still subject to these torture chambers, anti-social conditions, indeterminately housed in the SHU. As gang associates (incorrectly by CDCR), our already poor communication abilities with family and friends in our country is made worse by constant IGI interference and delays in mail distribution. These are the facts and the issues. We Hispanic Mexican nationals doing life terms seek your support and assistance along with and in solidarity with the prisoner’s peaceful Hunger Strike and the Core Demands.

We are as one within this struggle and in unity we ask all to include our one demand in solidarity with us….Which is a call for CDCR to simply comply with and for us to be identified under the international Treaty of Vienna Convention. The treaty was adopted by the United Nations conference held at Vienna on the twenty-fourth day of April in one thousand nine hundred and sixty three (April 24, 1963). Agreements that both the U.S. and Mexico signed. We also want to be included in the U.S./Mexico prisoner exchange program (currently as lifers, we are ineligible). We are a prisoner class that is in need of the humane and just treaty.

We Mexican nationals, seek this demand in solidarity with California prisoners: For lifers to be included in the prisoner exchange treaty and for CDCR to comply with the Vienna Convention international law. And our rights to be free from torture of indefinite solitary confinement (in the SHU).

Lastly, the California Prison Reduction and Cost Saving bill past recently and federal courts are mandating CDCR comply with it. We want included as a key issue, Mexican nationals and all undocumented immigrants be returned to their own country to do their time. Yet again, lifers are surely excluded , and not only that, but also CDCR will exclude us in segregated housing under erroneous gang labels.

The conditions and practices that imprisoned man, women, and children experience are in violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations Convention Against Torture, and the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination

U.S. prison practices also violate dozens of other international treaties and fit the United Nations definitions of genocide.

See this article of the US Human Rights Network for the following citation:

Article 1 of the U.N. Convention Against Torture prohibits policies and practices that “constitute cruel, inhumane, or degrading punishment”. The history of international attention to this issue is compelling.

In 1995, the U.N Human Rights Committee stated that conditions in certain U.S. maximum security prisons were incompatible with international standards. 

In 1996, the HRW special reporter on violence against women took testimony in California on the ill treatment of women in U.S. prisons

In 2000, the United Nations Committee against Torture roundly condemned the U.S. for its treatment of prisoners, citing super-max prisons and the use of torture devices, as well as the practice of jailing youth with adults. The use of stun belts and the restraint chair was also cited as violating the U.N. convention against torture. 

In May 2006, the same committee concluded that the U.S. should “review the regimen imposed on detainees in super-maximum prisons. In particular, the practice of prolonged isolation”.


                                                          Respectfully
                                                        In Solidarity,
Juan Carlos Molina #K30854
C.S.P. COR-SHU 4B-2L-47
P.O. Box 3481
Corcoran, CA 93212

Private Prison Information Act of 2013

This is a letter that concerns making private prisons more transparent. PrisonWatchNetwork.org endorses this letter as well.

Please visit the website on which this letter to Repr. Sheila Jackson Lee is published:

Privateprisoninformationactof2013.blogspot.com

We – a coalition of over 30 not-for-profit criminal justice and public interest organizations – urge Representative Sheila Jackson Lee (TX) to reintroduce the Private Prison Information Act during the 113th Congress. The bill, which would extend Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) reporting obligations to private corrections companies that contract with federal agencies, is an important first step in bringing transparency and accountability to the private prison industry.

PRESS RELEASE
Human Rights Defense Center– For Immediate Release
December 19, 2012
Organization Urge U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee to Reintroduce Private Prison Information Act
Washington, DC: – Yesterday, a joint letter signed by 34 criminal justice, civil rights and public interest organizations was submitted to the office of U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, urging her to reintroduce the Private Prison Information Act.
The Private Prison Information Act (PPIA) would require for-profit prison companies that contract with the federal government to comply with public records requests made under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to the same extent as federal agencies. Currently, FOIA does not apply to private companies that contract with the federal government.
We are deeply troubled by the secrecy with which the private corrections industry presently operates. Whereas the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and state departments of corrections are subject to disclosure statutes under the Freedom of Information Act and state-level public records laws, private prison firms that contract with public agencies generally are not,” the joint letter submitted to Rep. Jackson Lee noted. “This lack of public transparency is indefensible in light of the nearly $8 billion in federal contracts that Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group (GEO) – the nation’s two largest private prisons firms – have been awarded since 2007.”
In fact, according to the U.S. Senate’s Lobbying Disclosure Electronic Filing System, CCA has lobbied against the PPIA when it was introduced in previous Congressional sessions. Other allies of the private prison industry, including the Reason Foundation – which receives funding from CCA and GEO – have also opposed extending FOIA to private prison contractors.
Both CCA and the GEO Group receive over 40 percent of their revenue from federal contracts, which “makes them the perfect candidates for FOIA compliance” because “The private prison industry is fundamentally different in that no citizen can freely purchase incarceration services as a private individual. There is no natural market for incarceration services; the entire market would cease to exist without direct government intervention in the form of taxpayer-funded contracts to operate correctional facilities.”
The joint letter submitted to Rep. Jackson Lee was a cooperative project between UC Berkeley doctoral student Christopher Petrella and the Human Rights Defense Center. Signatories include the ACLU National Prison Project, Florida Justice Institute, In the Public Interest, Justice Policy Institute, National CURE, Prison Policy Initiative, Southern Center for Human Rights, Southern Poverty Law Center, Texas Civil Rights Project, Enlace and YouthBuild USA.
The private prison industry operates in secrecy while being funded almost entirely with public taxpayer money,” noted Human Rights Defense Center associate director Alex Friedmann, who testified in support of the PPIA before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security in June 2008. “The public has a right to know how its money is being spent, and transparency and accountability demand that private prison corporations answer to the public by being subject to FOIA requests to the same extent as federal agencies. If they have nothing to hide from the public, they should not object – but they do, which speaks volumes.”
Obligating private prison companies to comply with FOIA requirements applies a single standard for transparency in corrections reporting regardless of agency type,” added Christopher Petrella. “And because efforts to privatize federal detention facilities are on the rise – populations held in privately-operated facilities have grown by nearly 20 percent over the past year – the time is right to demand meaningful accountability in the private corrections industry.”
________________________
The Human Rights Defense Center, HRDC, founded in 1990 and based in Brattleboro, Vermont, is a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting human rights in U.S. detention facilities. HRDC publishes Prison Legal News (PLN), a monthly magazine that includes reports, reviews and analysis of court rulings and news related to prisoners’ rights and criminal justice issues. PLN has almost 7,000 subscribers nationwide and operates a website (www.prisonlegalnews.org) that includes a comprehensive database of prison and jail-related articles, news reports, court rulings, verdicts, settlements and related documents.

Christopher Petrella is a doctoral candidate in African American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley where he is currently working on a manuscript entitled “Race, Markets, and the Rise of the Private Prison State.” His work on the private corrections industry has been cited by a number of national organizations and campaigns including Prison Legal News, the ACLU’s National Prison Project, Southern Poverty Law Center, Justice Policy Institute, Prison Policy Initiative, National Prison Divestment Campaign, and the Real Cost of Prisons. He’s also a frequent contributor to Truthout, Business Insider, Monthly Review, and Nation of Change.

For further information, please contact:

Alex Friedmann, Associate Director
Human Rights Defense Center
(615) 495-6568
afriedmann@prisonlegalnews.org
Christopher Petrella 
(860) 341-1684
cpetrella@post.harvard.edu


December 18, 2012

The Honorable Sheila Jackson Lee
U.S. House of Representatives
2160 Rayburn Building
Washington, DC 20515
Re: Private Prison Information Act

Dear Representative Jackson Lee:
We, the undersigned not-for-profit criminal justice and public interest organizations, respectfully urge you to reintroduce the Private Prison Information Act (PPIA) during the 113th Congress. The bill, which would extend Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) reporting obligations to private corrections companies that contract with federal agencies, is a critical first step in bringing transparency and accountability to the private prison industry.
We are deeply troubled by the secrecy with which the private corrections industry presently operates. Whereas the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and state departments of corrections are subject to disclosure statutes under the Freedom of Information Act and state-level public records laws, some state courts have held that private prison firms that contract with public agencies generally are not. This lack of public transparency is indefensible in light of the nearly $8 billion in federal contracts that Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group (GEO)—the nation’s two largest private prisons firms—have been awarded since 2007.
If private prison companies like CCA and GEO would like to continue to enjoy taxpayer-funded federal contracts, then they should be required to adhere to disclosure laws equivalent to those governing their public counterparts—including FOIA.
Though five separate iterations of the Private Prison Information Act have been introduced in Congress since 2005, each bill has died as a result of vigorous lobbying efforts on behalf of the private corrections industry. According to documentation maintained by the U.S. Senate’s Lobbying Disclosure Electronic Filing System, Corrections Corporation of America has spent over $7 million lobbying against the passage of various Private Prison Information Acts since 2005. They claim that the bill violates their “trade secret” FOIA exemption.
But why should private prison contractors, which are paid exclusively with taxpayer funds, be any less accountable to taxpayers than public corrections agencies such as the Bureau of Prisons? We contend that because the private prison industry relies entirely on taxpayer support, the public has a right to access information pertaining to its operations.
There is little evidence that taxpayers currently have access to the type of information that would allow them to evaluate the performance of private corrections firms in comparison to the public sector. Though the private prison industry routinely cites its record on measures of efficiency and safety relative to public agencies, it nonetheless refuses to disclose the very information required to substantiate its most basic claims of success.
Disclosure statutes providing the public with access to information pertaining to the operations of private prisons is vital if reasonable comparisons are to be made between the private and public sectors.
The time to reintroduce and pass this bill is now. Privately-operated federal facilities have grown 600 percent faster than state-level contract facilities since 2010, and now represent the single most quickly-growing corrections sector. Moreover, business from federal customers like the Bureau of Prisons, U.S. Marshals Service, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement now accounts for a greater percentage of revenue among private prison companies than ever before.
In the past, critics of the Private Prison Information Act have argued that its passage would set a “dangerous precedent” for FOIA overreach. In his 2007 testimony before the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security, Mike Flynn, the Director of Government Affairs for the Reason Foundation, testified that applying FOIA to private prison companies could open the “floodgates” to any other federal contractor and, by extension, their contractors and suppliers. “Thousands of individuals, small and large businesses, provide services to the government and products to the government at great efficiency for the taxpayers [and] all of that could be opened up to the FOIA process,” he claimed. He did not mention that Reason Foundation receives funding from private prison companies, including CCA and GEO.
We squarely reject these unfounded assumptions. The Private Prison Information Act should be applied narrowly and judiciously. It is unlikely that the Private Prison Information Act, if enacted, would unwittingly extend FOIA provisions to other private companies because private prison firms hold an exceptional market position relative to other private companies. To our knowledge, no other type of private industry is contracted by the public sector solely to perform an essential governmental function such as incarceration.
That private corrections firms are supported exclusively by public agencies and enjoy the benefits of operating within an artificial government contract-driven market makes them the perfect candidates for FOIA compliance. In most economic sectors there is a free market analogue for many kinds of services that governments typically provide. A field such as education, for example, has a robust market of existing non-profit and for-profit organizations and agencies willing to sell/provide services to a market of potential buyers that includes both individuals and governments.
This is not the case with private corrections firms.
The private prison industry is fundamentally different in that no citizen can freely purchase incarceration services as a private individual. There is no natural market for incarceration services; the entire market would cease to exist without direct government intervention in the form of taxpayer-funded contracts to operate correctional facilities.
We, the undersigned, argue that because private prison firms are ultimately functionaries of the state, they must come under the same FOIA requirements as their public counterparts. We therefore urge you to reintroduce the Private Prison Information Act this Congressional session and are willing to support your efforts. Should you have questions or require additional information, please feel free to contact either Christopher Petrella at 860-341-1684 or cpetrella@post.harvard.edu, or Human Rights Defense Center associate director Alex Friedmann at 615-495-6568 or afriedmann@prisonlegalnews.org.
Respectfully,
ACLU National Prison Project
Center for Constitutional Rights
Center for Media Justice
Center for Prison Education
Enlace
FedCURE
Florida Justice Institute
Florida Reentry Resources & Information (FreeRein)
Grassroots Leadership
Human Rights Defense Center
In the Public Interest
Justice Policy Institute
Justice Strategies
Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition
Media Alliance
National CURE
National Immigrant Justice Center
Partnership for Safety and Justice
Prison Policy Initiative
Private Corrections Institute
Private Corrections Working Group
Southern Center for Human Rights
Southern Poverty Law Center
Texas Civil Rights Project
Texas Jail Project
The Center for Church and Prison
The Fortune Society (David Rothenberg Center for Public Policy)
The Real Cost of Prisons Project
The Sentencing Project
The Workplace Project/Centro de Derechos Laborales
Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center
Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform
Voters Legislative Transparency Project
YouthBuild USA, Inc.
And the Prison Watch Network