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PLN prevails in FOIA suit against ICE

Seattle Times, June 21, 2015.

Homeland Security found in violation of open-records law

Judge finds “egregious” violations of Freedom of Information Act by Homeland Security and awards fees and costs to Prison Legal News for a lawsuit involving fees charged to inmates for telephone calls.


A federal judge has found “egregious” violations of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by the Department of Homeland Security for failing to respond to a request for information about the telephone costs for immigrant detainees.

U.S. District Chief Judge Marsha Pechman, in an order issued Thursday, chastised the department and U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for ignoring Prison Legal News’ FOIA request for information about how the agency determines telephone-call rates for detainees.

The FOIA was part of a larger, mostly successful effort by the advocacy group to control the costs that prison systems and telephone-service contractors charge inmates to make phone calls.

Pechman noted that Homeland Security failed to respond to the first FOIA request in July 2013, even though the law says an agency must provide an initial response within 20 days. Failing to do so opened the agency up to a federal lawsuit, the judge noted. A second FOIA request in December also went unacknowledged.

Prison Legal News sued in April 2014.

In September, ICE responded with a heavily redacted response that did not disclose a key “performance incentive rate” in a phone-provider contract, which Pechman concluded had been improperly withheld.

Pechman pointed out that it took 361 days since the first FOIA letter for DHS and ICE to turn over the first batch of documents, and that it took “several months” for the agencies to finish.

“The Court finds the delay in responding to Plaintiff’s request to be egregious,” she wrote, and awarded Prison Legal News reasonable attorneys fees and costs for pursuing the lawsuit.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Seattle, which represented the agencies, said Friday it was reviewing Pechman’s order and had no comment.