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Article on prisoners' access to personal info of prison staff quotes PLN editor

Community News Content, Jan. 7, 2016.

Prison guard sues DOJ over release of personal information to inmate

  • Community News Content

WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. – While working in a federal prison in Pennsylvania six years ago, Randall Spade was stunned when he was asked a simple question. According to a suit he has filed against the Department of Justice, an inmate asked him about his home town.

That one question led to an investigation -- and now, a lawsuit -- as Spade says he fears for his safety and that of his family because inmates at Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary, a high-security facility in Pennsylvania, have his home address and Social Security number.

Spade's case is not the only time prison employees' personal information has landed in the hands of prisoners. In August of last year, Social Security numbers, names, positions and salaries of employees from the Dixon (Illinois) and Lawrence (Illinois) correctional facilities were accidentally released to a private citizen through a Freedom of Information Act request, according to KTVI. The information was then mailed to an inmate, before it was caught in a mailroom inspection.

"When an inmate is requesting information, it's not for anybody's good, especially when they're lifers, for vicious assaults or whatever," Jon Pepe, president of American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees Local 391 told the Huffington Post in 2010. "These are not good people."

Spade, of Richfield, Pennsylvania, expressed his concerns in a suit filed last week in U.S. Middle District Court, in which he seeks unspecified damages from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Spade accuses the Justice Department of being negligent to allow an inmate, reportedly through a Freedom of Information Act request, to obtain his personal information.

Attempts to resolve the issue with the Justice Department before filing suit failed, the court complaint states.

Ed Ross, director of public affairs for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, said the DOJ does not comment on current litigation.

According to Erich Urbach, a defense attorney in Oklahoma City, part of the problem in filing a lawsuit when personal information is leaked to prisoners is figuring out the damages.

“I would argue that really there aren't any damages until something happens to this guy, which is a weird thing,” Urbach said. “He's under the threat. He's always looking over his shoulder, but he's probably doing that anyway because of the line of work he does, just like a cop.”

Spade says in the suit he was stunned when an inmate he was escorting on Sept. 12, 2011, in the special housing unit asked: “hey Randy, how’s Richfield?” in reference to the town where Spade lives. A short time he later he said he heard the inmate recite his Social Security number.

Four days later, he was advised by a supervisor that his personal information had been found in the inmate’s cell, the complaint states.

Spade reviewed the documents and said they contained his date of birth, Social Security number, home address and work history with the Bureau of Prisons. He was assured there would be an investigation, he said.

On Nov. 15, 2011, when the inmate was removed for a cell search, he yelled Spade’s information to another prisoner, the document states. Searches of various cells revealed other inmates had written down the information, it states.

Spade claims on Nov. 17, 2011, then-Warden Brian Bledsoe told him the inmate had mistakenly been sent an original copy of his personnel file instead of a redacted one. He said he received confirmation of that from the Bureau of Prisons on Dec. 23, 2011.

The suit claims about the same time, another correctional officer overheard an inmate say Spade better stop messing with him because he has his home addressed memorized and he has connections on the street.

Spade accuses the Office of Internal Affairs of being negligent in sending his information to the inmate and failing to remedy the mistake.

Prior to filing suit, Spade sought damages pursuant to the Federal Tort Claims Act. He said he received notice in October 2013 his claim had been denied, and on July 6 of this year, his request for reconsideration of that decision was also denied.

There are safeguards in place to keep vital information from getting into the hands of prisoners when it comes to the Freedom of Information Act. That includes redacting or blacking out personal information. However, that doesn't always work.

Former prison guard at the Lawton, Oklahoma, Correctional Facility, Trae Alford, says there other ways for inmates to get this information that do not have anything to do with official public records requests. Some prisoners have access to the administrative sections of the prison, which gives them access to personnel files.

“That's just like hiring a criminal to come in and clean my house,” Alford said. “If I hire a criminal to clean my house, then I should be on high alert that this guy is probably going to steal something. He is a criminal.”

Paul Wright, editor of the Prisoner Legal News, is wary when he hears such claims from prison officials.

“As a general rule, people can request anything they want to,” Wright said. “But in some respects I think that's kind of a red herring. Just because so much personal information is already available publicly. Back in the real world, I can learn far more about individuals just using Google and search services, and a lot faster, just by sitting in front of my computer than I can ever find out using public records request.”