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PLN mentioned in article about restricting WA prisoners' access to public records

News Tribune, Jan. 1, 2009.
PLN mentioned in article about restricting WA prisoners' access to public records - News Tribune 2009

Use care in cutting off cons’ access to public records


Last updated: September 17th, 2009 12:26 AM (PDT)

Prison inmates, by and large, don’t evoke much public sympathy. That helps explain why in a state like Washington, with its proud tradition of open government, a bill to limit prisoners’ access to public records passed the Legislature nearly unanimously this year.

Not that the bill didn’t have merit. We were among its supporters, in large part out of disgust for Allan Parmelee, a King County arsonist who makes sport out of filing public records requests for jailers’ and court officials’ personnel information.

Corrections workers logged nearly 4,900 hours responding to Parmelee’s 812 public records requests – which, when they aren’t designed to harass or intimidate, were something of a business venture. He hoped to make a killing collecting fines from government agencies that took too long to respond.

Parmelee isn’t reaping many rewards these days. Since lawmakers passed the new law in March, at least three of his targets have moved to have courts permanently enjoin Parmelee from requesting public records.

He’s not alone. Government attorneys and public employee unions are catching on to using the new law to block other inmates’ requests.

In what is believed to be the first permanent injunction order under the new statute, a Snohomish County court in June sided with a correctional officer’s fight to block an inmate from receiving copies of her disciplinary record and complaints made against her.

The inmate – who has a lengthy record of assaults, threats and other offenses against prison staff – had allegedly threatened to use the information to harm the guard.

Last month in King County, jail nurses won a temporary stay against two murder suspects’ attempts to get their names. And up in Skagit County, the Burlington city attorney is asking a judge to bar an inmate who is serving time for assault and robbery convictions from getting the arresting officer’s report on the 2004 case and the officer’s personnel records.

The flurry of legal action was to be expected. Department of Corrections officials have been pushing for the ability to stem public disclosure requests from inmates for years, but it wasn’t until Parmelee became such a creepy nuisance that they convinced lawmakers to act.

But not every inmate is Parmelee, and not every records request is nefarious. An inmate should – without question – be able to read the very report that helped put him behind bars. And prisoners who seek personnel information don’t always have intimidation on their minds. Paul Wright, who founded Prison Legal News from behind bars, went after such records in an attempt to document shoddy prison medical care.

Prison workers and government lawyers may be inclined to try to block many records requests that don’t necessarily “threaten the safety or security of staff, inmates, family members of staff, family members of other inmates, or any other person” as the new law requires.
It’s up to judges to ensure that the law is used sparingly and doesn’t become a blanket exemption to the state’s important public disclosure laws.



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