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PLN wins medical misconduct records lawsuit in Washington Supreme Court

Post-Intelligencer, Jan. 1, 2005.
PLN wins medical misconduct records lawsuit in Washington Supreme Court - Post-Intelligencer 2005


Prison newspaper wins case on names
Identities of medical staffers to be revealed

Friday, July 15, 2005



The state can't keep secret the names of prison medical workers who have botched the treatment of inmates or hide the identity of people who witnessed the misconduct, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

The decision was a long-awaited win for activist and former prisoner Paul Wright, editor of Seattle-based Prison Legal News. He has tried for more than five years to get the state Department of Corrections to give him the information.

He said documents he got from the state in 2000 -- with names and other details blacked out -- show that 14 prison medical staff members were disciplined for their treatment of two inmates who died and eight who suffered serious injuries, including two prisoners who overdosed and one whose wound was closed with Krazy Glue.

"It's good that we won. The bad news is that the DOC has kept this under wraps for five years, " said Wright, who now lives in Vermont. "It's an excellent ruling for both press freedom and government accountability."

The Department of Corrections argued that revealing the names of disciplined staff and the people who'd reported them "jeopardizes the safety and security of the institutions, as well as the inmates," said state Assistant Attorney General Michael Sellars.

He said simply that yesterday's ruling "clarifies the issues for the department."

The case centered on the state's Public Disclosure Act, which Wright used while he was still behind bars to seek copies of various documents related to prison health workers who'd been found to have committed misconduct. He wanted to write an article about the issue for his newspaper.

Yesterday, the court's 6-3 majority, led by Justice Richard Sanders, said the state -- which gave Wright 1,200 pages of documents -- should not have blacked out the names of the disciplined medical staff members and witnesses.

The court rejected the state's argument that revealing the names would cause reprisals, finding it unlikely that an inmate who reported shoddy treatment would be at risk from fellow inmates, or that it would prompt staff members to retaliate.

Justices also said the state shouldn't have withheld information about inmates' treatment and medical conditions simply by deeming it private health care information; the state now needs to prove such information would easily identify the patient in order to withhold it.

The state will have to pay a penalty to Prison Legal News, from $5 to $100 for each day it withheld documents.

A Thurston County judge will decide the exact amount.

Wright's lawyers, Michele Earl-Hubbard and Alison Howard, were pleased the high court overturned two previous court decisions.

"I think the fact that he was an inmate ... affected the earlier decision-making," Earl-Hubbard said. "When it comes to public-disclosure, their rights are the same."

Wright began the battle while he was serving 25 years for felony murder in a 1987 Seattle shooting. He was freed in December 2003.

The 40-year-old man has waged many legal battles with prisons in Washington and across the country, including efforts to make sure prisoners are allowed to receive Prison Legal News by mail.

He said he wants the names of medical staff members who have made errors to find out if they'd been disciplined before being hired by the Washington prison system.

Three justices agreed with the state that disclosing the names in question "would interfere with DOC's duty and ability to operate its prisons in a legal, safe, secure, and orderly manner," wrote Justice Mary Fairhurst, joined by Justice Charles Johnson and now-retired Justice Faith Ireland.