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Targeting A Group That ‘Lends Legitimacy’ To Human Caging

The American Correctional Association has granted accreditation to includes detention centers, prisons, and jails where people are held in horrific conditions.

Men wearing handcuffs
People shackled at the Adelanto Detention Facility, an ACA-accredited facility(John Moore/Getty Images)

Spotlights like this one provide original commentary and analysis on pressing criminal justice issues of the day. You can read them each day in our newsletter, The Daily Appeal.

The atrocities at the U.S.-Mexico border, where children and adults are held in dangerously unsafe facilities, have brought national attention to the conditions in these facilities and the large-scale, prolonged detention of people in them.

Reports of the abuses and efforts to end them have focused on the president, the Department of Homeland Security, and Border Patrol officers, among other actors.A protest in Boston this week drew attention to a lesser-known entity.

This week was the 149th annual conference of the American Correctional Association. The nonprofit organization provides accreditation to public and private prisons and jails. For private prison and jail operators, that accreditation is a requirement to win contracts with the federal government. State facilities also seek out the ACA’s accreditation.

Private and public prison and jail officials cite the ACA’s accreditation as evidence of their commitment to safe and humane conditions. But the list of facilities that the ACA has granted accreditation to includes detention centers, prisons, and jails where people are held in horrific conditions. The overcrowded El Paso Detention Center, where detained people were reportedly forced to drink water from toilets;  Angola prison in Louisiana, notorious for its use of solitary confinement and substandard medical care; the Essex County jail in New Jersey, which Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General recently faulted for multiple examples of unsafe and inhumane conditions, all have ACA accreditation.

Critics of the ACA have recently come to include Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a Democratic presidential candidate. In letters to the ACA, the Bureau of Prisons, the Department of Homeland Security, and private detention operators in May, Warren focused on the ACA’s role in granting accreditation to privately run detention centers, describing the organization as “a conflicted party with twisted incentives, a lack of transparency, and lax inspection policies that appear to have turned accreditation into a rubber-stamp process that does little to hold facilities accountable.” Private prison employees are on the ACA’s accreditation and standards committees. The organization charges hefty accreditation fees, which form the bulk of its revenue. Its conferences are sponsored by the private prison companies seeking accreditation for their facilities.

But the problems with the ACA’s accreditation process extend beyond the private prison industry, and state officials have also questioned its operations, in one case describing an ACA independent review as “nothing but a sham.” Accreditations are carried out by longtime corrections officials. They largely involve a review of written policies. In-person inspections, when they happen, happen with three months’ notice, giving administrators plenty of time to make superficial improvements.

The concerns about the ACA go back decades. In 1980, Judge David Bazelon, the influential federal appeals court judge, joined the accreditation committee of the ACA, formed a few years earlier. Two years later he resigned.

At the time of his resignation, he wrote: “The history of corrections in America, I believe, is best characterized as a conspiracy of silence between corrections officials and the public. In the words of the Attica Commission, ‘prisons, prisoners, and the problems of both are essentially invisible in the United States. We Americans have made our prisons disappear as if by an act of will.’’’

He had joined the ACA, he said, because he had believed in “the promise of the accreditation movement in corrections.” But what he found instead was an organization rife with conflicts of interest and resistant to transparency. “In permitting itself to be used in this way,” Judge Bazelon wrote, “the commission has betrayed the very purpose of its existence.” He urged his fellow commissioners to “change their present course” warning that if they did not, “this country will have lost one of the last, best hopes for reforming the human wasteland that is our prison system.”

In a conversation with the Daily Appeal, one of the organizers of this week’s protest in Boston echoed Judge Bazelon’s language 37 years later.  “The companies that profit from incarceration and immigrant detention really thrive off of our collective silence,” Rachel Bishop of Deeper Than Water said. “The ACA, by giving a rubber stamp that pretends to hold these groups accountable, allows that silence and even encourages that silence.”

“We decided to target the ACA because it is the largest accreditor for private and for-profit prisons and detention centers in the country,” Bishop said. “It lends legitimacy to facilities that are guilty of widespread abuses of the people inside.”

Bishop cited one example of the symbiotic relationship between the ACA and for-profit prison operators in particular. There was an awards banquet for the vice president of GEO Group at the conference yesterday, and the ACA honored “a group that has demonstrably violated standards in a consistent way,” she said. “They should be condemning that company, not awarding them.”

The protests this week were noteworthy because they drew attention to the ACA’s role in accrediting facilities of all kinds. Rather than differentiating public prisons from private ones, or the criminal legal system from the deportation machinery, organizers see them as overlapping and connected problems.

Bishop spoke of the protesters’ abolitionist vision and also their immediate demands: “The ACA upholds this myth that through reform we can deliver a prison system that is humane and that is treating people the way we think human beings ought to be treated … the accreditation is a false promise that they will deliver conditions suited for people inside. When, in fact, we believe no human being belongs in a cage and even the nicest, most well-appointed cage is still a cage.”

One short-term demand is that the ACA make the results of its audits public. “Were they forced to make the entire credentialing process public we would have much more insight into what’s actually going on in the facilities they’re rubber-stamping,” Bishop said. Another is “that they stop credentialing facilities that have well-documented histories of abusing people inside.”

“This is bigger than Trump, this is about more than Trump,” she added. “Our focus is on unseating the systems and moving to a place where we have real investment in communities … really taking care of our neighbors and our communities rather than treating them as disposable and throwing them away.”