What Happens When You Put a Fox in Charge of the Hen House

An investigation by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) that the certification of prisons in the United Sates by the American Correctional Association (ACA) is ineffective and corrupt.

This should surprise no one, the ACA is the primary lobbying organization for the prison industry.

Also, the entire fact that I am unironically using the term, “Prison Industry,” is an indication of just how morally bankrupt the current state of affairs is. 

Our carceral state needs to be reformed:

The organization responsible for accrediting US prisons, jails, and detention centers runs a “corrupt” process that puts a “rubber stamp” on dangerous facilities while taking in millions from the private prison industry, according to a scathing report from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), shared exclusively with Mother Jones.

The report, the result of a nearly 19-month investigation by the senator’s office, examined the American Correctional Association (ACA), a nongovernmental organization that acts simultaneously as a professional association and an oversight body for prison and detention systems. Federal, state, and local governments pay the ACA to audit the facilities where they keep people incarcerated and issue its stamp of approval on their operations. Qualifying facilities must meet the standards ACA spells out in its published manuals, covering everything from fire code compliance to officer gun training. Private prisons and detention centers, meanwhile, are often required to get accredited by the ACA to access lucrative government contracts, according to Warren’s report—and when scrutinized, they point to their accreditation status as a defense. After all, the ACA’s website says, accreditation is awarded to the “best of the best.”

The problem, Warren’s report found, is that the “best of the best” includes virtually every facility that pays its accreditation fees. The ACA currently counts over 1,200 accredited facilities; since 2007, only four have been denied accreditation. The groups provides three months’ notice and preparation tools for audits, “essentially providing the answers to the test in advance,” as the report puts it. And the ACA’s seal of approval lasts three years, with facilities conducting “self-reporting” in the interim.

“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. “The result has been the rubber-stamping of dangerous facilities and the waste of millions of taxpayer dollars.” Warren recommends that the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security stop paying the ACA for accreditation and instead establish a “rigorous, independent, and transparent” oversight process.


“The ACA’s private prison 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,” Warren’s report states. “These problems put the health and wellbeing of incarcerated and detained individuals, the staff and employees who work in those facilities, and our communities at risk.” (In his letter, Gondles wrote that criticizing the ACA for problems at accredited facilities “misunderstands” the purpose of its accreditation program: “ACA accreditation does not mean that there will never be an incident of violence, or that there will never be noncompliance with a health-related, safety, or other ACA standard,” he said.)

The report’s description of a lax ACA auditing process lines up with what my colleague Shane Bauer observed in 2015 while working undercover as a guard in a prison run by CoreCivic, then known as the Corrections Corporation of America:

But why is the system so broken? Warren’s report suggests that it all comes down to money. In addition to being “the closest thing we have to a national regulatory body for prisons,” as Bauer put it, it’s also a professional association that lobbies Congress on criminal justice issues and serves as a “voice for corrections.” That dual role presents an “irreconcilable conflict of interest” when the time comes to evaluate conditions inside prisons and detention centers, Warren’s report argues.

For one thing, the ACA gets nearly half its revenue from accreditation fees paid by the very entities it audits, including top private prison companies, her investigation found. Over a five-year period from 2014 to 2018, the GEO Group spent $1,429,599 on ACA accreditations, while CoreCivic spent $867,580, according to the report. The Management and Training Corporation, a smaller competitor, paid $501,850. The companies pay the ACA tens of thousands more in conference costs, certification fees, training, and for other services. Meanwhile, current or former private prison employees sit on each of the ACA’s governing boards and committees. (“The fact that one representative of a private correctional company sits on ACA’s Executive committee and two such representatives sit on the ACA’s Board of Governors and Delegate Assembly could not even begin to suggest that ACA is somehow beholden to those private interests or that the decisions of ACA’s governing bodies are driven by persons with conflicts of interest,” Gondles wrote in his letter to Warren, adding that the organization was governed by volunteers.)

Self-regulation is to regulation as self-importance is to importance.

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