To test the effectiveness of freedom of information laws, Pulliam/Kilgore interns Katie O’Keefe and Laura Merritt, who were novices in the field of obtaining public records, conducted a mini-FOI audit. They attempted to get information from federal and state prisons of similar security level or size.
The two tried to obtain the number of violent, criminal offenses that occurred inside selected prisons during the six-month period of July 1, 2004 and Jan. 1, 2005.
O’Keefe attempted to get this information from five states: California, Texas, North Dakota, Massachusetts and Indiana. She chose these states based on their different geographic locations and political orientations.
Merritt attempted to get the information on the federal level. Of the low-security federal correctional institutions, she chose Fort Dix in New Jersey, Yazoo City in Mississippi and Herlong in California. Of the privately managed facilities, she selected Eden CI in Texas. She also attempted to get information about the Center of Faith Community Correction Center, a half-way house in Little Rock, Ark.
Below is their first journey through the FOI process.
Tuesday, June 14
Like any Internet-dependent fact-finder, I Google: “federal prisons.” A few clicks later, and I am at the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ online Freedom of Information Act request page. The form looks simple enough. It even includes portions about fee waivers and expedited reviews, giving me hope that they are serious about records requests.
Before sending the request, I wanted to make sure the form covers all of the bases suggested for journalists, so I use the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press online letter generator to make sure I’m not missing anything. The information seems to match up pretty closely, but I decided to throw in the line: “I look forward to your response within 20 business days as required by 28 U.S.C. 552” based on the RCFP letter. Besides, I’ve been through an entire year of law school and hadn’t had the chance to cite U.S. code to anyone.
Wednesday, June 15
I haven’t heard anything about my request. I’m wondering if it might have been better to send requests to the individual prisons. I’ll wait until the end of the week to see if the Washington office responds.
Monday, June 20
Still haven’t heard anything official. I call to confirm that the Bureau of Prisons received my request and to ask if it would help to send requests through the individual prisons. I look up a phone number for the media relations department — I’ll try it first, then a FOIA officer. The first item on the media relations page says the services are for news media representatives; there’s a link to their policy with the definition.
I’m curious about how they define “representatives of the news media” partially to see if I actually qualify. Also, I’m working on the Pulliam Kilgore report that will focus on how journalists are defined — from professional practices to legal standards and judicial rulings — and how these definitions could apply to or be used in proposed federal shield law legislation.
I download the 11-page “program statement” to find that:
“Representatives of the news media” mean persons whose principal employment is to gather or report news for:
a. A newspaper which qualifies as a general circulation newspaper in the community in which it is published. A newspaper is one of “general circulation” if it circulates among the general public and if it publishes news of a general character of general interest to the public such as news of political, religious, commercial or social affairs. A key test to determine whether a newspaper qualifies as a “general circulation” newspaper is to determine whether the paper qualifies for the purpose of publishing legal notices in the community in which it is located or the area to which it distributes;
b. A news magazine which has a national circulation and is sold by newsstands and by mail subscription to the general public;
c. A national or international news service; or
d. A radio or television news program whose primary purpose is to report the news of a station holding a Federal Communications Commission license.
I’m writing for Quill, which is distributed to SPJ members, but non-members also can subscribe. It is more of a trade magazine than a newsmagazine. The definition seems to want a pretty broad circulation in order for someone to qualify. Also, the phrase “principal employment” can limit a lot of people, including freelancers and unpaid contributors, from being considered journalists.
I decide to call media relations – they’ll transfer me if they don’t think Quill qualifies. Besides, I seriously don’t think that the person who answers the phone will question whether someone writing for an organization with “professional journalists” in its title qualifies as a representative of the news media.
I ask for a FOIA confirmation; I get transferred a few times. They have nice “hold” music. I ask if it is better to go through their office or the individual prisons. I get transferred again.
“Can you call is back later? Our system is down.”
“Sure, when would be a better time?”
I call back.
My limit is 20 minutes before I hang up and call again.
Apparently, it was their limit, too. My call gets revived just as I was about to hang up. The woman asks for the inmate number. I wasn’t requesting information on a specific inmate, I explain. She asks for my e-mail (hopefully to track my electronic request), and then it’s back to the hold music.
Another woman quickly picks up. She has my request in front of her and says it will take a while to fill since I am requesting information from different areas. I ask if it would have been better to send the requests to the individual facilities, and she says no, affirming what I was told earlier. She says the reply is a standard letter they send, and it would say that my request will take additional time. She offers to transfer me to the paralegal who was assigned my request.
I get her voice mail, leave a message and wait.
I doubt I’ll have any progress to report before this goes to print. My experience has been pretty much what I expected. The fact that someone did seem to be working on my request was encouraging, but I know if I had actually needed the information for a daily story, that encouragement would have been too little, way too late.
(As of press time, I received no response from the bureau regarding my request and never received any information)
Tagged under: FOI