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July 18, 2013 | By | Posted in Features

PA lawmakers want to lock away info from prisoners

By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent

HARRISBURG — Hundreds of public information requests bombard the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections each year.

Who requests the most?

Inmates.

Some of that information is important, from sentencing information to health records to the nutritional value of prison-provided meals.

Others, such as the notorious request seeking information about the brands of underwear provided to inmates and guards, less so.

Citing concerns about safety to corrections employees and an overwhelming amount of appeals, some Pennsylvania lawmakers want to give government entities the ability to flatly deny inmates’ Right-to-Know requests.

In four years, the amount of inmate-filed Right-to-Know requests to the DOC nearly tripled, from 547 in 2009 to 1,527 in 2012. That’s the most the department has seen since the state passed the law in 2008, and 79 percent of all requests the department processed that year.

House Bill 115 would give agencies the ability to deny all Right-to-Know requests made by incarcerated individuals.

Rep. RoseMarie Swanger, R-Lebanon, sponsored the bill because an inmate in her district is using the law to harass a judge and other law enforcement personnel who were involved in his case, she said.

SWANGER: The Lebanon County representative sponsored a bill that will allow government agencies to deny Right-to-Know requests from prisoners.

SWANGER: The Lebanon County representative sponsored a bill that will allow government agencies to deny Right-to-Know requests from prisoners.

“He has also used information he garnered to negatively affect the credit rating of the wife of a county detective,” Swanger wrote to other lawmakers in a co-sponsor memo. “Any legitimate information needed by an inmate to pursue an appeal is available through another existing statute.”

Some say Swanger’s proposal goes too far, since many inmate requests are innocuous.

House State Committee Minority Chairman Mark Cohen, D-Philadelphia, said he thinks inmates have a right to understand the prison system in which they’re living.

“I think prisoners have a legitimate interest in what programs are available, what rules they’re under and so forth,” he said.

Cohen is also opposed to  House Bill 418  from Rep. Rob Kauffman, R-Cumberland. That bill would disallow any felon — whether they were still in prison or not — from receiving any record containing personal identification information for a corrections employee, like a full name or home address.

Cohen said the state would be better off looking at privacy exemptions, rather than one specific case. As it stands, Right-to-Know responses can be censored to keep personal information from release.

Prisoners advocates wonder what it would mean to have the “felon” label apply to Right-to-Know requests. James Cavanaugh, who works with Pennsylvania prisoner re-entry coalitions, said he’s concerned about labeling felons in another arena.

Felons often find difficulty finding jobs or housing, he said, despite the fact that many go on to be successful and productive members of society.

“I’m only asking them to consider who is a felon, and how the commonwealth wants to treat these people,” he said.

According to statistics from the Office of Open Records, 31 percent of appeals handled in 2012 came from inmates. That year, 419 appeals involved the DOC, the most of any state agency. Appeals involving the Pennsylvania State Police were second, with only 43.

METCALFE: The House State Government Chairman said he thinks lawmakers will be able to do a Right-to-Know update of some kind in the fall.

METCALFE: The House State Government Chairman said he thinks lawmakers will be able to do a Right-to-Know update of some kind in the fall.

The Office of Open Records received a $310,000 funding increase in funding this year, for a total $1.68 million budget. That was triggered by a burgeoning number of appeals, with only eight staff attorneys to handle the cases.

An update to the Right-to-Know law is expected in the fall. Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, sponsored a bill examined by a Senate committee earlier this year. The House has a series of bills with related updates to the law, which were examined by the House State Government Committee Wednesday.

House State Government Committee Chairman Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, said he thinks the state should question inmates’ rights for requesting information.

After all, part of being behind bars means giving up certain rights, he said.

“If requests are being made through an attorney or somebody that’s even acting as their own attorney to deal with a specific case or an appeal, that’s one thing,” Metcalfe said. “But to deal with all these other requests that are being made, it sounds like there’s a lot of frivolous requests being made and taxing the system and being used by inmates to put a burden on the people, the ‘we the people,’ who put them in prison in the first place.”

APPEALS: This chart from the Office of Open Records shows the percentage of cases staff handles from inmates.

Terry Mutchler, executive director of the Office of Open Records, said at the hearing the state should be cautious about suggesting inmates can’t get any information. She pointed to New York and Texas systems that have a different process for inmate information requests than one used by the rest of the citizenry.

Before the 2008 Right-to-Know Law, Pennsylvania was widely considered one of the least transparent states in the nation.

Mutchler cautioned about creating a special class of citizens, as any rewrite should be carefully crafted to ensure public information is still available.

“We want to make sure we refine this without gutting it,” she said.

Contact Melissa Daniels at melissa@paindependent.com

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Melissa Daniels is a reporter for PA Independent. She can be reached at 717-350-0962 or Melissa@PAIndependent.com

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