By Alex Friedmann
BRATTLEBORO, Vt. – Increasingly, government agencies are contracting out their public duties, from garbage collection to courthouse security.
One area of privatization that has raised significant concerns is the operation of prisons, as this involves an essential governmental public safety function that deprives people of a fundamental right: their freedom.
Prison Legal News, a monthly publication of the Brattleboro, Vt.-based Human Rights Defense Center, covers criminal justice issues on a national level and has been at the forefront of demanding public accountability when prison operations are privatized.
Many state public records laws do not explicitly address access to records held by private contractors that perform government functions. The danger is that by contracting with private companies, government agencies are contracting away the public’s right to know how their taxpayer dollars are being spent. This is particularly problematic in the prison context.
On June 7, 2013, PLN, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, filed a lawsuit in state court after submitting a public records request seeking information about legal settlements involving the Corrections Corporation of America – the nation’s largest for-profit prison firm.
The Vermont Department of Corrections contracts with CCA to house hundreds of Vermont prisoners in out-of-state facilities. CCA ignored PLN’s records request as well as a subsequent administrative appeal.
“The public needs to know how prisoners are treated and to understand how the for-profit prison industry works,” said PLN editor Paul Wright. “By reviewing CCA’s litigation settlements, Prison Legal News can report on the ways in which Vermont prisoners are being injured at CCA facilities and suffering violations of their constitutional rights, and how much CCA is willing to pay for the misconduct of its employees.”
Wright noted that Prison Legal News has filed similar lawsuits against private prison companies. PLN successfully sued CCA in Tennessee, where the company is headquartered, for failing to comply with that state’s public records statute; recently filed a a public records suit against CCA in Texas; and successfully sued private prison firm GEO Group under Florida’s public records law.
Additionally, PLN sued Prison Health Services for failing to produce public records in Vermont; PHS had previously provided medical care for Vermont prisoners. The company settled the case and agreed to produce the requested records.
“As far as we’re concerned, a private corporation that is playing the role of a state agency through a privatization contract is the functional equivalent of a state agency and is thus accountable to the public,” Wright stated.
PLN’s latest lawsuit, filed in Superior Court in Montpelier, seeks a court order requiring CCA to disclose records related to settlements involving litigation by Vermont prisoners. The case is Prison Legal News v. CCA, Superior Court, Washington Unit (VT), Docket No. 332-5-13 WNCV.
Alex Friedmann is managing editor of the Prison Legal News in Brattleboro, Vt.