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PLN WA DOC public records case mentioned in article about DOC prison director

Olympian, Jan. 1, 2007.
PLN WA DOC public records case mentioned in article about DOC prison director - Olympian 2007

Published November 12, 2007

Openness is key for new prisons chief

Embattled state prison chief Harold Clarke is on his way to Massachusetts, getting out of Washington state before a portion of his employees could take a vote of no confidence in his administration.

Gov. Chris Gregoire will appoint Clarke's successor as secretary of the state Department of Corrections. As she interviews candidates, the governor must question each one about commitment to open public records. We say that because Corrections officials and their state attorneys have a terrible record in that regard. The next prison chief must change the culture within Corrections to one of openness and transparency.

The state prison system recently settled a lawsuit over its refusal to disclose certain public records in electronic form, agreeing to pay $65,000. It was just the latest Corrections payout for its failures to disclose records.

In the most recent case, the Department of Corrections refused to hand over electronic records related to health-care benefits for employees. Other agencies complied with the request, but not Corrections. Then Gregoire undercut Corrections in September when she signed an executive order to all agency directors urging them to comply with requests for electronic copies of records. Clarke and his staff turned over the health records and agreed to pay the $65,000 fine.

Earlier dispute

Three weeks earlier, Corrections had agreed to pay $541,000 in legal fees and fines in connection with a separate, years-long denial of records to Prison Legal News. The watchdog newspaper, founded by a former inmate, had sought records showing backgrounds of prison medical staff that inflicted injuries on inmates through negligence. After years of wrangling over the records, Corrections eventually was fined more than a half million dollars for its failure to release the records in a timely fashion.

Those two settlements in public record lawsuits in a month's time paint a picture of a state agency that prefers secrecy to transparency.

That's a governing philosophy the next prison chief must correct. Corrections officials need to understand that they are the mere custodians of records — that the records themselves belong to the public and it's the agency's responsibility to release those records when requested.

Tense years

The public records problem was only one of the difficulties that led to Clarke's departure after three tense years at the helm of Washington's prison system. He takes over the Massachusetts' prison system Nov. 26.

For many of the 8,000 Corrections employees, the change means the end of a difficult relationship.

" 'Rocky' is not the word. It's more 'frosty,' " said Tim Welch, spokesman for the Washington Federation of State Employees. "He had real trouble engaging his frontline workers and just kind of kept them at arm's length. That's not a good thing in an agency secretary."

The union represents community corrections officers, who supervise convicts after they leave prison. It was that parole-like system that took a great deal of criticism — primarily from Republicans — during Clarke's tenure. The heat was turned up after released prisoners killed three police officers in King County last year.

The community officers called for a no-confidence vote in Clarke, saying he wasn't up to leading the department. The vote had not been scheduled.

But Clarke had his successes, too. A portion of his "re-entry initiative" was passed by the Legislature this year. Clarke's plan was designed to better prepare offenders for life outside prison and reduce the number who commit new crimes.

"We are in the business of public safety. And we know how to build a safe and secure institution. We know how to lock people up. But to me, the real measure of public safety is what happens when we release those offenders, the choices they make," Clarke said when he began his push for the changes last year.

Clarke's departure gives Gregoire the opportunity to find someone who will continue Clarke's focus on prisoners re-entering society, but also an agency director who is committed to operating the Department of Corrections in an open and transparent fashion.