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Nonprofit Prison Accreditor Perpetuates Abuse and Neglect, Senators Say

Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Ed Markey, and Jeff Merkley wrote a letter to the federal Bureau of Prisons and Department of Justice asking the agencies not to renew a contract with the American Correctional Association.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren stands at a lectern giving a speech.
Sen. Elizabeth WarrenGage Skidmore / Flickr

Yesterday, three Democratic lawmakers asked the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), which oversees the federal prison system, to cut ties with the American Correctional Association (ACA), a nonprofit accreditation agency and trade group, which the legislators say operates a corrupt system that abets human rights abuses.

In a letter to BOP director Colette Peters and U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, the senators asked the BOP not to renew the agency’s more than two million dollar contract with the ACA, which expires next month.

“The ACA’s accreditation system has proven to be little more than a rubber stamp, and the BOP’s contract with the ACA has been a waste of taxpayer dollars,” reads the letter from U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren, Ed Markey, and Jeff Merkley. “For decades, the ACA has come under fire for maintaining an accreditation system that is largely toothless and is marred by conflicts of interest.”

Correctional facilities that seek accreditation from the ACA must first enter into a contract with the organization. The ACA website says its audits assess virtually every aspect of a correctional facility, including medical care, sanitation, and the use of “segregation.” Accreditation is awarded to the “‘best of the best’ in the corrections field,” reads the website.

But the senators say the ACA does not provide the independent oversight it claims to. Instead, the lawmakers say the ACA approves “virtually every facility that pays the accreditation fee.”

A BOP spokesperson declined to answer The Appeal’s questions about the senators’ allegations and if they planned to renew the contract with the ACA. The DOJ and ACA did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The senators’ letter requested information about the accreditation process, how long auditors visited each facility, and what alternatives to the ACA had been examined. In December, the BOP issued a Request for Information (RFI) from companies that audit prison facilities but said it was not seeking proposals at that time.

In the letter to the federal agencies, the senators also sought information about potential conflicts of interest. They asked for the number of times DOJ staff members had spoken at ACA conferences in the last five years and, on average, the number of DOJ staff who had attended ACA conferences annually. The senators requested a response to their questions by March 13.

Generally, lock-ups that contract with the ACA receive three months’ advance notice of an audit and are provided with checklists, evaluation forms, and opportunities to participate in “mock audits,” according to the senators’ letter. The lawmakers said facilities that fail the audit can still receive accreditation.

But even this minimal oversight of the federal prison system has largely been eliminated. According to a federal audit of the BOP’s contract with the ACA, the nonprofit has agreed to renew accreditation for federal prisons based on the BOP’s internal review reports rather than through independent evaluations. The November audit said all federal prisons had received accreditation at that time.

The ACA says it uses the BOP’s internal reviews when evaluating facilities for reaccreditation but also tours facilities, interviews staff, and speaks to incarcerated people.

The auditors wrote they “did not identify any instances where the BOP used the ACA accreditation process to improve BOP standards.” The report concluded with several recommendations designed to improve oversight of the federal prison system.

In a written response attached to the audit, the BOP agreed with each suggestion.
“The [federal Bureau of Prisons] has already begun analysis of accreditation services and relevant FBOP policy and practices to ensure the appropriate level of independence and how accreditation enhances FBOP operations and programs,” the agency wrote.

In their letter, the three senators said the ACA has a financial incentive to provide accreditation to the facilities it’s supposed to evaluate independently. According to the letter, almost half of the organization’s revenue comes from fees and payments related to its accreditation process, while another 25 percent is derived from private prison companies’ financial support of ACA conferences.

In addition to the issues mentioned above, accreditation can also undermine claims of abuse made by incarcerated people and their loved ones. The ACA website states that the certification can help fight allegations of mistreatment.

“Accredited agencies have a stronger defense against litigation through documentation and the demonstration of a ‘good faith’ effort to improve conditions of confinement,” the website says.

Numerous investigations conducted by legislators and reporters have exposed widespread abuse and inhumane conditions inside BOP prisons. A congressional investigation revealed in 2022 that the federal agency had failed to stop pervasive sexual abuse of female prisoners, for example.

Last year, The Appeal published an investigation into FCI Tallahassee that revealed “rampant” sexual abuse by staff and retaliation against victims. Shortly after The Appeal published its investigation, auditors from the Office of the Inspector General made a surprise visit to the facility. They observed insect-infested bags of cereal and rodent droppings in food storage warehouses. According to the report, vegetables sat rotting in a refrigerator, and women were served moldy bread.

The senators’ letter to the BOP and DOJ is part of a broader call for oversight of the scandal-plagued federal prison system. Last year, Senators Jon Ossoff, Dick Durbin, and Mike Braun introduced the Federal Prison Oversight Act to create an independent ombudsperson. This official would communicate confidentially with incarcerated people, make unannounced visits to federal prisons, and investigate allegations of abuse and poor living conditions. The bill still sits in the Judiciary Committee and has not yet been voted on.

“The ACA’s accreditation system is ineffective at best, and at worst misleads the public to believe that a failing facility’s operations are adequate,” the senators’ letter says. “We urge you to identify alternative means of oversight that involve genuinely independent, rigorous audits of each BOP facility.”