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HRDC Sues Illinois DOC Under FOIA, Again, for GTL Contract Details

by Chuck Sharman

On August 18, 2021, a lawsuit was filed in the circuit court for Cook County in Chicago, Illinois by the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), the publisher of Prison Legal News (PLN) and Criminal Legal News (CLN), accusing the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) of failing to timely produce prison phone contract documents that HRDC had sought under the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) 5 ILCS 140/1.

HRDC’s initial request, filed on June 10, 2021, asked for records of state contracts for prisoner video visitation services, specifically: contracts between the service provider, Global Tel Link (GTL), and IDOC since January 1, 2019; receipts for commissions paid for the services to IDOC or its assignees during that period; and allocations of those commissions.

Under the law, IDOC had five business days to respond, which expired June 17, 2021. But after it blew by that statutory deadline—IDOC didn’t respond with its request for more time until June 21, on day 11. The agency then refused the request on day 18, saying it was “unduly burdensome” to comply.

FOIA does in fact make provision for the state to refuse a records request on those grounds in certain limited situations. But the law clearly states that the opportunity to do so is forfeited whenever the government misses its deadline. 5 ILCS 140/3(d)(o) and (f). In other words, the state can’t sit on the request longer than five days, then ask for even more time to respond before ultimately deciding that complying is “unduly burdensome.”

HRDC’s complaint contains three counts:

• that IDOC failed to produce the records sought under the June 10, 2021, FOIA request;

• that IDOC also failed to prove it searched for the records at all; and

• that IDOC is, therefore “willfully or intentionally” refusing to provide documents to which HRDC is entitled by the law.

As a result, the complaint asks the Cook County Circuit Court to find IDOC in violation of the state’s FOIA, force compliance with HRDC’s current request and future ones, and also pay civil penalties along with the nonprofit’s associated legal fees, plus any “such other relief the Court considers appropriate.” See: Human Rights Defense Center v. Illinois Department of Corrections, Cook County, Circuit Court, Case No. 2021-CH-04102.

If this seems like a case of déjà vu again, it is. In 2015 HRDC requested this same prison phone contract from IDOC and they issued the same response in refusing to provide the contract, claiming it was too burdensome to do so. On July 27, 2015, HRDC filed suit in the same court. On June 15, 2016, the parties settled the lawsuit with IDOC providing the prison phone contract in question and paying $5,250 in attorney fees and costs. See: Prison Legal News v. Illinois Department of Corrections, Cook County, Circuit Court, Case No. 15-CH-11292. 

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Related legal cases

Human Rights Defense Center v. Illinois Department of Corrections, Cook County

Prison Legal News v. County of Cook