I remember when Seth Freed Wessler first told me he believed people were dying needlessly inside the federal government’s private prisons. It was more than three years ago now. Riots kept breaking out in those facilities, and sources were telling Seth that, despite the official line about gangs, the unrest was actually due to shockingly bad medical care. But the facts—how many people were dying, what was killing them, and who was responsible—were at best murky. The only thing we knew was that this problem was rooted in our government’s catastrophic decision to criminalize border crossing, a choice that ballooned the federal inmate population so quickly it demanded a fast, cheap solution: privatization.
Three years later, we know the ugly facts. We know them because Seth refused to drop it. He filed open-records lawsuits and dislodged tens of thousands of pages of medical records and internal reviews. He tracked down families in rural Mexico. He knocked on doors of former prison guards and doctors, coaxed details out of whistle-blowers at the Bureau of Prisons. Throughout 2016, The Nation has been publishing the results of that dogged reporting, in partnership with the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute.
Yesterday, the Department of Justice announced that, finally, it had heard enough facts, too. One week after an inspector general’s report affirmed Seth’s own findings, the Justice Department directed the Bureau of Prisons to stop using private contractors to run its prisons. By next spring, the number of inmates in federal private prisons will have been dramatically reduced. Within five years, they will have been zeroed out.
Privatized state prisons have received important media scrutiny, but Seth’s investigation is the first to deeply examine the recurring complaints of inmates held in the private corner of the federal system. Seth’s reporting uncovered dozens of deaths following substandard care and widespread medical neglect. His open-records lawsuit and interviews with whistle-blowers established that the government’s own watchdogs had been sounding the alarm for many years. And yet year after year, Washington renewed the contracts—as BOP brass cashed in on public service by becoming executives and board members of the same companies that were allowing inmates to drop dead in their prisons.
This kind of reporting is why I come to work every day.
Yesterday’s announcement from the Justice Department is a welcome reminder: Even in the age of Trump, facts still can and do matter. Our work is to ferret them out and wield them as tools for reform.
That work, however, is both time-consuming and wildly expensive.
The reporting costs alone for Seth’s investigation were upwards of $40,000. That’s not counting hundreds of ours of labor from Nation editors, our team of fact checkers, photographers and designers, legal support—the costs pile one on top of the next, likely reaching at least $150,000. Seth himself had to finance his lawsuit before he even got the story moving.
We were blessed to partner with the Investigative Fund to help with these costs. But even with partners, reporting of this depth and complexity is simply not possible without support from our readers—all of you.
Real reporting costs money. Without the financial support from readers like you, hard-hitting, investigative stories like this one simply wouldn’t exist. Contributions from our readers provides more than 20 percent of our annual budget—your dollars help file FOIA requests, pay for travel, employ editors, and researchers, and cover legal fees. We don’t exist without you. Period.
By donating $35 or more today, you can help fund more stories like these. And we need fearless reporting like this now more than ever. I hope I can count on your support.