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PLN files public records suit against CCA in Vermont

Burlington Free Press, Jan. 1, 2013.
PLN files public records suit against CCA in Vermont - Burlington Free Press 2013

ACLU sues for prison lawsuit records
Jun. 6, 2013 6:48 PM

MONTPELIER — The American Civil Liberties Union in Vermont has filed a state public records lawsuit to dislodge records showing settlements of lawsuits brought by prisoners against the Corrections Corporation of America.

The Vermont Corrections Department contracts with CCA to house Vermont inmates in out-of-state facilities.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Prison Legal News, a nationwide monthly periodical of the non-profit Human Rights Defense Center. The publication reports on prison conditions and on prisoners’ rights and developments in prison litigation.

As part of its reporting on conditions in private prisons such as those operated by CCA, the News submitted a public records request to CCA in the fall of 2012 seeking information about lawsuits filed by Vermont prisoners housed in CCA-operated facilities.

CCA — the nation’s largest for-profit prison company — ignored the request, as well as a subsequent administrative appeal, according to Allen Gilbert, executive director of the ACLU in Montpelier.

“The public needs to know how prisoners are treated and to understand how the for-profit prison industry works,” News editor Paul Wright said.

“By reviewing CCA’s litigation settlements, Prison Legal News can report on the ways in which Vermont prisoners are being injured at CCA facilities and suffering violations of their constitutional rights, and how much CCA is willing to pay for the misconduct of its employees,” he said.

Gilbert said it is an important Vermont public records case with far reaching implications.

“States and municipalities are contracting out more and more of their responsibilities, and it’s vital that Vermonters don’t lose the ability to see what’s being done in their names and with their tax dollars.”

Wright noted Prison Legal News has pursued similar cases in other states. The News successfully sued CCA in Tennessee, where the company is headquartered, for failing to comply with that state’s public records statute, and recently filed a similar suit in Texas.

“As far as we’re concerned, a private corporation that is playing the role of a state agency through a privatization contract is the functional equivalent of a state agency and is thus accountable to the public,” Wright said.

Vermont ACLU staff attorney Dan Barrett, who represents Prison Legal News in the suit, agrees.

“A contractor cannot exercise the power of the state to hold human beings in prison cells and then turn around and say that the company is not subject to public scrutiny. We think that Vermont’s public records law applies equally to CCA when it stands in the shoes of the state Department of Corrections.”

The lawsuit, filed in the Vermont Superior Court’s civil division in Montpelier, seeks a court order requiring CCA to disclose the requested records.