Prisons are essentially paying for accreditation without real accountability, a new report says

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A new report exclusively obtained by Mother Jones found that the organization responsible for ensuring that federal and private prisons meet certain standards simply accepted payment in exchange for a seal of approval. The report comes after a year-long investigation led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) into the American Correctional Association (ACA), which is a nongovernment organization that offers accreditation for private and publicly funded prisons and detention facilities.

Among the many revelations about the ACA's compromised integrity and inability to properly vet corporations that incarcerate people for profit is the fact that the organization has essentially established a pay-to-play system. "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 report states.

As the system currently stands, private prisons — which need ACA accreditation to apply for government contracts — provide millions of dollars in revenue to the ACA. "Documents obtained as part of Sen. Warren's investigation reveal that, from 2014 to 2018, the ACA received over $48 million in revenue. Almost half — $21.9 million — came from accreditation fees and payments," the report reads.

Specifically, the report states that the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) "paid the ACA almost $1.9 million for accreditation of public, government-run facilities." Abroad, $150,000 in taxpayer dollars went to the accreditation of detention centers in South Korea and Germany. And Texas, with one of the largest state prison systems in the country, paid $1.75 million to the ACA between 2014 and 2018.

As Mother Jones points out, the monied conflicts of interest are just the tip of the iceberg. "Meanwhile, current or former private prison employees sit on each of the ACA's governing boards and committees," Mother Jones explains, illuminating that the very officials charged with handing out ACA approvals are deeply tied to the incarceration corporations and agencies that benefit.

"Incarcerating and detaining millions of people for profit perverts our criminal and immigration systems and disproportionately harms Black and brown people," the senator said in a statement to Mother Jones. "This investigation 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."

Warren calls the arrangement a "rubber stamp" payment-for-approval process, and says that as a result of the scheme it's unlikely ACA accreditation has improved conditions for imprisoned or detained people. Prisons are notoriously dangerous public health hazards that at best lack access to consistent medical care, and at worst, abuse the people in custody.

Private prisons as well as federal prisons and detention facilities profit off of the idea that incarceration makes communities safer, when in fact the opposite is often true. Moreover, as the federal government has allowed the coronavirus pandemic to progress, imprisoned people have suffered some of the worst consequences because they lack access to basic tools like masks and soap and are housed in inevitably communal areas and close quarters.