ACLU Sues PA Department of Corrections for Failing to Comply with New Right to Know Law

May 14, 2009
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PHILADELPHIA - The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania has filed one of the first court appeals under Pennsylvania's new Right to Know Law (RTKL) on behalf of Prison Legal News (PLN), an independent monthly publication that reports on corrections and criminal justice-related issues. The appeal, filed yesterday in the Commonwealth Court, charges that the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) has failed to comply with the new law, which was supposed to make it easier for people to gain access to public records held by government agencies.

"The obstacles and difficulty in obtaining public records from government agencies in Pennsylvania make the state's Right to Know Law a misnomer; it is better called the Right to Know Nothing law as applied by the state Department of Corrections," said Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal News.

In February, PLN submitted a RTKL request to the DOC, seeking records related to successful claims and litigation against the DOC, including documents related to public funds the DOC had paid out as a result of lawsuits and claims between January 1, 2001 and December 31, 2008.

Less than 10 days later, the DOC told PLN that the requested documents represented some 35,000 pages and that PLN would have to pay $8,750 in copying costs before the DOC would produce a single document. The DOC denied PLN's request that it waive fees, as permitted by the RTKL when the production of documents would be in the public interest. The DOC has maintained that it may decide what document requests are "in the public interest" and need not explain its decision. PLN appealed to the Office of Open Records, which ordered the DOC to allow PLN to duplicate the records itself without fee if PLN provided its own copying equipment. After it was ordered to produce the records, the DOC reversed itself and sent PLN a letter stating that it would make only a fraction of the supposed 35,000 pages of documents available for copying.

"If the new Right to Know Law is to have any effect," said ACLU staff attorney Mary Catherine Roper, "it must not allow government agencies to play games with ever-changing requirements and positions that deter and frustrate the public's efforts to obtain what are, after all, public records."

Prison Legal News, founded in 1990 and based in Seattle, Washington, is a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting human rights in U.S. prisons. PLN publishes a monthly newsletter that includes reports, reviews and analysis of court rulings and news related to prisoners' rights and criminal justice issues. PLN has over 6,800 subscribers nationwide and operates a website (www.prisonlegalnews.org) that includes a comprehensive database of prison and jail-related court rulings, verdicts, settlements and other documents.

Learn more about the case and see a copy of the appeal here.

Category: Open Government
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