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PLN editor Paul Wright quoted in article about legislation to restrict public records to WA prisoners

Post-Intelligencer, Jan. 1, 2009.
PLN editor Paul Wright quoted in article about legislation to restrict public records to WA prisoners - Post-Intelligencer 2009

Bill seeks to halt records 'fishing'

Judge could stop prison requests, a move critics say is going too far

Last updated February 11, 2009 9:21 p.m. PT


OLYMPIA -- The state Public Records Act of 1972 says its terms should be liberally applied to all citizens, but Sen. Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood, thinks the law may be too liberal.

Carrell said it "isn't appropriate" to allow certain individuals unlimited access to public records, comparing what has been deemed excessive public record gathering to overfishing a sea of information. The ones doing the overfishing, he said, are those serving time in correctional facilities in Washington state.

The Attorney General's Office says about a half-dozen inmates are abusing the Public Records Act to threaten correctional staffers and overwhelm the system as a means to harass those responsible for keeping them behind bars.

Carrell is the prime sponsor of a Senate Bill 5130, which would allow agencies to ask a court to enjoin public records requests made by prisoners in state correctional facilities in order to put a stop to what critics say are a flood of both ridiculous and dangerous requests.

The agency that is being served with requests would be able to take their complaint to a court, which would decide if the request is legitimate.

The Department of Corrections received more than 6,000 requests from inmates during the first three quarters of 2008, a figure they say nearly doubled from the same period in 2007.

The reason for the sharp increase in inmate requests, said Tim Lang, senior assistant to the attorney general, is a trend to abuse the Public Records Act led by renegade inmate Allan Parmelee, creating what the DOC claims to be thousands of hours of extra work responding to the requests.

Parmelee is a convicted arsonist whose car bombings of lawyers prosecuting cases against him landed him in prison. Since his incarceration, the DOC has reported that Parmelee has made 812 public records requests.

One inmate even submitted a request for the number of paper bags bought at each DOC facility for the past three years.

John Scott Blonien, assistant secretary to the DOC, explained that the nuisance became dangerous when the handful of inmates abusing the system began requesting documents that contained the addresses, photos and professional histories of corrections officers and Washington State Patrol troopers.

Some of the requesters even asked for the blueprints for all fire escapes and copies of tapes taken by surveillance cameras.

"Some felon who is pursuing appeal to their case should have access to the records pertinent to their case, but the concern is not that they're trying to mine information about their case, but whether or not this is an open-pit mine or a tunnel," Carrell said.

Inmates such as Parmelee are abusing the act so much that something has to be done, Carrell said, causing what he said is a "huge, huge endeavor" to answer all the requests.

"This hinders our ability to disclose legitimate information. This hinders our ability to be transparent. We want to be transparent," said Chad Lewis, communications director for the DOC.

Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, expressed concern that the bill's language is vague enough that it could include more than just inmates and be a potential threat to all citizens' civil rights.

"The terminology is very poorly defined and leaves a lot of power to the court," Nixon, a former state legislator, said. "How do you define harassment or annoying? This is a bit flimsy for something that denies people a civil right."

Carrell said that he's confident the courts will determine fairness, and definitions don't need to be nailed down by the legislation.

But Carrell said that a judge could be callous to any type of individual bringing a case before a judge. That's why there are courts of appeal, he said.

Carrell said that his bill is the Legislature's best defense against those who abuse the Public Records Act, and giving agencies the ability to try and stop the few abusive requestors through a court process is better than dishing out penalties as a solution.

"What penalty would you have? They haven't broken the law," Carrell said.

The DOC has been sued more frequently over the past decade, which is what Paul Wright of Prison Legal News believes to be the true reason for this bill. Parmelee isn't the real reason the DOC is doing this, said Wright, a prisoner rights activist.

"It's a total red herring," he said.

Wright created Prison Legal News in 1990 to expose "what's going on in the DOC," where he edited the paper while behind bars for the first several years, serving time for first-degree murder.

He was released in 2003.

During his time with Prison Legal News, Wright made numerous public records requests around the country. The only agencies he said he's ever had trouble with are police departments, jails, prisons and the DOC.

"The DOC doesn't want to provide transparency," Wright said.

Wright said he believes the DOC is trying to pull a bait-and-switch, using annoying inmates such as Parmelee as their poster boys.

Wright's successful lawsuit against the DOC was one of the first to expose what he claims to be serious medical inadequacies within the system.

In Prison Legal News v. Washington State Department of Corrections, Wright sued for disclosure of the names of 14 doctors after 10 inmates seen by them either died or were severely maimed.

The documents were withheld and Wright was awarded $541,000, the largest public records related settlement in state history.

The issue of public disclosure made available to prisoners is one with which the Legislature has been grappling for years.Toby Nixon said inmates who abuse the process should be stopped, but it's hard to say how without taking away civil rights.