Following a lengthy investigation, Sen. Elizabeth Warren published a report on the dubious process by which prisons are approved for operation in our country.
For a year and a half, Warren and her staff looked at how the American Correctional Association (ACA) audits prisons. The ACA is an NGO that acts as an oversight body for America’s detention systems. The government pays the ACA to audit the operations of prisons and other facilities that hold incarcerated individuals.
In order to obtain the ACA’s seal of approval, facilities must purportedly meet high safety and personnel training standards. After a private prison is accredited by the ACA, it can quickly gain access to government contracts. The ACA’s auditors never show up at a prison unannounced, limiting their ability to learn about a facility’s everyday conditions. In fact, ACA gives prisons months of notice before an inspection.
While the ACA vows to grant accreditation only to the top facilities, Warren’s team found that basically every prison that pays the ACA’s accreditation fees is approved. Since 2007, 1,200 facilities were accredited, and only four were denied accreditation.
Once a facility is approved, it can operate for three years without undergoing any further audits. According to the report, “A review of available evidence suggests that that accreditation has little to no correlation with detention facility conditions and practices, and therefore little to no value whatsoever. The result has been the rubber-stamping of dangerous facilities and the waste of millions of taxpayer dollars.”
Warren has advised the government to stop hiring the ACA to handle prison accreditations and establish a transparent oversight process.
Problems observed at accredited facilities include staffing inadequacies and poor living conditions. One for-profit detention center for illegal immigrants received a score of over 99 percent from the ACA despite:
- Abuse of solitary confinement
- Unwarranted use of shackles
- Severely ill detainees forced to wait months to see a doctor
- Prevalence of suicide attempts and little prevention
The failings and violations listed above were only discovered after a government agency conducted a surprise inspection of the facility, which the GEO Group operates.
Warren’s report states that the ACA’s accreditation system “is riddled with conflicts of interest, lacks transparency, and is subject to zero accountability even though millions in taxpayer dollars…flow to the ACA and private prison companies.”
In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ACA’s lax safety standards may have contributed to the alarming infection numbers at America’s prisons and jails. So far, over 250,000 inmates have been infected with the virus. As prisoners get sick and die, the ACA has reduced auditing and refrained from adopting new health and safety standards to prevent infection.
At the heart of the ACA’s auditing failings is a conflict of interest. The NGO relies on private prison operators for half of its revenue. For example, between 2014 and 2018, the ACA received nearly $3 million from three of the largest prison operators combined.
“This investigation,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren stated, “shows that the American Correctional Association, the nation’s largest accreditor of federal prisons and detention facilities, is rife with corruption and that the federal government should end its reliance on ACA’s deeply-flawed accreditation process and ban private prisons.”
"Relying on a private organization to accredit and inspect private detention facilities that have a sub-par health and safety record is a recipe for disaster," Warren concluded.