February 20, 2009 in City

Lawmakers seek to limit inmates’ access to records

Bill would allow judges to restrict prisoners’ requests
Gene Johnson Associated Press
 

SEATTLE – An entrepreneurial spirit struck Allan Parmelee last fall as he sat in a Washington state prison, serving 17 years for bombing the cars of two attorneys.

He wrote a letter to his brother – who’s serving 11 years in Michigan for child pornography – and proposed a business venture: The pair could make a killing collecting fines from government agencies around the country that take too long to respond to their burdensome requests for public records.

That abusive attitude toward public records is nothing new for Parmelee and a handful of other prisoners in Washington state who have used the Public Records Act to annoy, harass and simply get back at the people who put them behind bars. But the problem has worsened dramatically in the last few years, many lawmakers say, and they’re ready to stop it by allowing judges to restrict how much access inmates have to public records.

Department of Corrections officials have been pushing the idea for at least a decade, but Parmelee has given their cause a new poster child this time around, with his hundreds of creepy requests for photos, surveillance video or personnel files on judges, prosecutors, prison guards and others he’s encountered in his legal odyssey.

The House and Senate are both expected to pass bills that would permit agencies or public employees who are the target of records requests from inmates to bring those requests to a superior court judge. The judge could strike the requests upon finding they are intended to harass or intimidate, or that the disclosure of the records would jeopardize security. The judge could also require any future requests made by the prisoner to be approved by the court.

The Department of Corrections and the state lawyers who handle its public records litigation say the measure would dramatically cut the amount of time they spend on frivolous or intimidating requests. Last year, the department received more than 11,000 public records requests, and 8,000 of those came from offenders.

The majority of those requests are legitimate, the department says – inmates seeking records about their cases, for example. But the agency points to a few prisoners it considers abusive, and Parmelee tops the list.

The department’s workers have logged nearly 4,900 hours responding to Parmelee’s 812 public records requests, which have sought photos and personnel files of the agency’s staff, among other things – some of which he’s entitled to. Parmelee has filed more than 700 requests in the last two years, the department says. He’s also won thousands of dollars in penalties in cases where the agency fought his requests, but the state has taken steps to apply those fines to his legal obligations.

“These requests carry with them the implicit threat – sometimes the explicit threat — that this offender will do everything he can to use this information to find out where these public employees live and to undermine their sense of security and safety in their homes,” Senior Assistant Attorney General Tim Lang told a Senate committee during a hearing on the legislation.

Lang’s boss, Attorney General Rob McKenna, is a noted advocate of open government. He requested this year’s legislation after Parmelee sought personal information about lawyers in the AG’s office.

“Everybody would agree that some felon who is pursuing an appeal to their case should have access to the records pertinent to their case,” said Sen. Mike Carrell, a Lakewood Republican who sponsored the measure. “The concern is not that they’re trying to mine information about their case, but whether this is an open pit mine or a tunnel.”

While it appears to enjoy bipartisan support – and even has the backing of the state’s newspaper industry – the approach causes heartburn in other quarters.

Seattle open-government lawyer Michele Earl-Hubbard agrees that Parmelee’s requests seem badly motivated, but she also says it’s dangerous to let the government decide what information is important for inmates to have.

Parmelee’s attorney, Michael Kahrs, said inmates have a vested interest in being able to gather information about how the state operates. He worries about a section of the Senate bill that says if a public agency’s request for an injunction is denied by a judge, or overturned on appeal, the agency does not have to pay any fines to inmates for delays in turning over the documents.

“If the DOC is not penalized, then where’s the downside for the department to basically obstruct all prisoner requests?” Kahrs asked. “And how are prisoners going to find an attorney to represent them if there’s no possibility of getting any recoupment of penalties?”

That possibility also troubles Paul Wright, a former Washington prison inmate and founding editor of Prison Legal News, a publication devoted to the rights of prisoners. After a six-year legal fight, Wright won a $541,000 settlement from the DOC in 2007 after the agency improperly redacted information on documents he sought for an expose on prison medical errors and discipline against prison doctors.

“They pretend it’s the Allan Parmelees of the world driving this, when really they just don’t want to give anything up,” Wright said. “It’s about ensuring a nonpublic, nontransparent agency remains so.”

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