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BOP Must Provide Prisoner's FOIA Request in Electronic Format

The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has held that the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) must provide a prisoner with information requested under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in the format requested by the prisoner, which includes in electronic format.

Federal prisoner Brandon Sample requested the BOP to provide him, in electronic format, with a large number of BOP documents. When he received no reply he filed a complaint in the federal district court for the District of Columbia. BOP claimed it never received the request regarding format and provided the requested documents in paper form. Sample was dissatisfied, continuing his claim for the same records in electronic format.

The district court, however, granted BOP's motion for summary judgment, holding that providing the records in electronic form would violate BOP security policies. Those policies limit prisoners' access to computer disks, CD-ROMs and computer terminals in an effort to prevent unsupervised communication with persons outside the facility and to protect the integrity of the BOP's computer systems. Sample appealed.

The Electronic Freedom of Information Act of 1996 directs agencies to provide records in the format specified by the requester, unless they are not readily reproducible by the agency in that format or form.

BOP argued the records were not "readily reproducible" in electronic format because Sample could not receive them in that form. The appeals court rejected that position, for "readily reproducible" simply "refers to a particular format. No case construing the language focuses on the characteristics of the requester."

BOP did not refute its ability to reproduce the records electronically. In fact, the BOP conceded as much by agreeing to provide the records in electronic format to Sample's non-prisoner designee.

The Court rejected BOP's argument that it had fulfilled its FOIA duties by providing the documents to Sample in paper form because he was a prisoner. The Court, further, refused to comment on Sample's argument that the BOP must provide him access to the electronic form of the documents, as it was BOP's role as FOIA respondent, not as Sample's custodian, that was before the Court. BOP's role as custodian in receipt of electronic records intended for a prisoner would only come into play after the FOIA request had been completed, and what happened after completion of the request was not before the court.

The district court's order was reversed with instructions to grant summary judgment in Sample's favor. See: Sample v. Bureau of Prisons, 466 F.3d 1086 (D.C. Cir. 2006).

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Related legal case

Sample v. Bureau of Prisons