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
CALIFORNIA: After calling California State Prison, Solano, I have been redirected three different times: to the corrections department director, the communications department and now the information officer. During our conversation, the information officer says she “doesn’t foresee me getting that information.” Not only does she ask what organization I am with, but she asks, “Is this just for research?”
I wasn’t expecting her to ask me this. Because this is my first attempt at making a FOI request, I admittedly am shaken. The only thing I come up with is, “Well, it is for an article. I guess it is mostly for research, but I need it for an article I am writing.”
The second the words come out of my mouth I wish I hadn’t said them. And the result is, she seems relieved. She tells me to call the communications director. Before hanging up, she says, “Make sure you tell her the information is for research.”
I don’t think my first request attempt was very successful, but at least I will be more prepared next time. I try calling the communications director, but she is out of the office on vacation until tomorrow. I am almost relieved. I decide to leave a message for her and wait until tomorrow.
TEXAS: I try Texas Eastham CID-Prison next. After just a few minutes on the Web site, I find a link and a fax number specifically for open record requests. I jot down the information.
Suddenly, I realize I need to figure out how to write a FOI request. Again I surf the Web. I come across a FOI request letter generator on the site for the Student Press Law Center. I create the letter, alter its tone slightly and print it on SPJ letterhead. I don’t fax it today. I would rather send out every state’s request on the same day for consistency.
NORTH DAKOTA: To start my search for information from the North Dakota State Penitentiary, I e-mail the warden – who also is director of the prisons division. I explain what information I need and ask where to send an FOI request if necessary. I hit “send” and wait for a reply as my e-mail flies off into cyberspace.
MASSACHUSETTS: After calling the superintendent of the Department of Correction, I am redirected to the chief of constituency services. I explain the information I need from MCI-Cedar Junction at Walpole, and she tells me to send a FOI fax to the director of public affairs.
She specifies the fax should be on letterhead paper of my organization. I wonder, if I was not a person affiliated with an organization, would I have to use letterhead? Regardless, I create a letter for the director of public affairs on letterhead, as requested. But I do not fax it just yet.
INDIANA: On the Indiana State Government Web pages, I find a site for the public access aounselor.
The job description states: “to provide advice and assistance concerning the Indiana’s public access laws to members of the public.” This sounds like a good starting place. I fill out a form on the site, asking where to send a request for the information regarding Indiana State Prison.
A half-hour later, I receive an e-mail from the counselor explaining that “our office is not a resource for how to find particular records, and most often, we have no idea what agency may maintain a given record.”
However, the counselor said she will “make an exception” for my questions and directs me to call the Department of Correction. But it is the end of the day and time to go home, so that will have to wait for tomorrow.
Wednesday, June 15
CALIFORNIA: After I left another message with the communications director, she calls me back. She asks me what organization I am with and why I need the information. I stick with the same line I told the prison’s public information officer: That it was primarily for research, and I will compare the information to other prisons. It is still more information than I think should be necessary.
As we talk, she says that California access laws are lenient since the signage of Proposition 59 last year. I have never heard of this and make a note to look into it after the phone call. She tells me where to fax my open access proposal.
After the phone call, I write the request.
Later in the day, I look into Proposition 59 that California passed into law last year. I learn that this law makes access to open records and government meetings a civil right in the state constitution. According to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, only five other states have a right-to-know provision in their constitutions: Florida, Louisiana, Montana, New Hampshire and North Dakota.
After reading Proposition 59, I feel slightly duped. The fact that the information was “for research” shouldn’t have mattered. I send the communications director a fax informing her that I read Proposition 59 and asking her to explain why I was asked so many questions. I feel a little better. Even though I gave out too much information before, at least now I am asking for an explanation.
TEXAS: I fax my FOI request to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Executive Services. According to Texas law, I should receive a response within 10 days — 20 days if the request requires a large amount of searching or manipulation of data.
NORTH DAKOTA: I hear an affirming “bing” and look at my e-mail inbox. The warden e-mailed me explaining the data I asked for “is all considered public information … so there is no need for any other request for information than your e-mail.”
In the e-mail, he lists facts regarding three prisons in North Dakota, including their size, capacity and population. He asks me to define “violent” offenses. He describes the difference between a Class A and Class B offense and makes suggestions of what he considers to be the most violent. These include: murder, taking hostages, assault on staff, sexual assault, arson, inciting a riot, work strike or mutinous disturbance, assault on another inmate, manufacture/possession of a weapon, extortion, blackmail for protection or fighting.
He says I should e-mail him with the offenses I want listed, and his administrative assistant will e-mail me back with the figures. I reply, asking for the statistics regarding those offenses.
Massachusetts: Along with the Texas and California FOI requests, I send my fax to the director of public affairs.
INDIANA: On the Indiana State Prison site, I find an e-mail address for the deputy commissioner of the Department of Correction. I decide to write him explaining what information I need. Instead of just waiting for a reply, I call the Department of Correction and am directed to the director of media and public relations. The PR director takes down the details of my request. She says she will call me back when she determines where I can send my request.
Friday, June 17
NORTH DAKOTA: It has been two days, and I haven’t heard from the administrative services manager yet. I write the warden an e-mail, informing him that I haven’t received a response from his assistant.
INDIANA: I still haven’t heard from the PR director regarding where to send my FOI request. I call her and leave a message. A few minutes later, when I return to my office, I have a message from her. She says she needs more information regarding what offenses I am looking for. I call her back and leave her another message, telling her I can fax her a list of the offenses if necessary.
Monday, June 20
NORTH DAKOTA: I just received an e-mail from the administrative services manager. Apparently the delay was due to a simple miscommunication. From this e-mail, I learn the manager compiled the data June 15 – the same day the warden and I exchanged e-mails. Only she sent it to the warden, who was out of town. She realized this today and sent the e-mail directly to me. It is amazing that only one day after I asked for the information, the agency attended to my request and disclosed all of the information.
INDIANA: This morning, I have voice mail waiting from the prison’s public information officer. I call, but he is not there. I leave a message and wait to hear back.
Around 10 a.m., the officer calls me back. He asks what type of information I need. He says it shouldn’t be a problem to get that information, and that he will get back with me soon.
Tuesday, June 21
CALIFORNIA: I contact the attorney general of California, filing an inquiry online explaining the situation that I believe did not coincide with the provisions of Proposition 59.
Massachusetts: Perhaps I mistrust technology, but I decide to call the public affairs director at the Massachusetts Department of Correction to make sure the fax went through.
I call and get through right away. The director says she received the fax and has passed it off to the legal department and that I should hear from it by June 26. She mentions I am smart to call and make sure that it went through. Apparently a while ago, someone had unplugged her fax machine when a reporter had tried to send a FOI request. The request never went through, and the reporter never called to check on it. Ten business days later, the angry reporter called questioning why he had never received a response.
Wednesday, June 22
INDIANA: I received a call from the public information officer. He tells me he contacted the Internal Affairs Office and found that there were zero offenses in Indiana State Prison. This number seems strange to me, so I ask if he can fax me any documents to prove this. He says there aren’t any, so we hang up.
A few minutes later, I call him back and ask for the phone number of the Internal Affairs Office so I can ask the people there for documents. Instead, he offers to e-mail me the response Internal Affairs sent him. I settle for this for now.
I receive his e-mail. Instead of a copy of the Internal Affairs Office’s e-mail, he states that he checked with the LaPorte County Prosecutor’s Office and verified the information.
Still slightly confused, I e-mail the officer again and ask how Indiana classifies a Class A offense. Maybe this will give me a better idea of how likely it is that zero offenses have occurred over the six-month period.
A couple of hours and a few confusing e-mails later, I write the officer and explain in detail what exact offenses I was looking for.
He responds, “Katie, if I give you the number of offenders convicted of A class felonies, there would be hundreds. This is a maximum-security prison.”
Well those “hundreds” are exactly what I am looking for.
I decide to save us both more confusion and send the officer an official FOI request, detailing all the information I needed.
Monday, June 27
INDIANA: I receive a letter today from the public information officer stating that he received my FOI request and will get back to me within the next 14 calendar days — by July 6. The letter is dated June 22, which means he wrote the letter the same day he received my request.
Tuesday, June 28
TEXAS: The assistant general counsel of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice e-mailed me for a clarification of my request. I write back asking for just the number of times each offense has happened over the six-month time period.
Massachusetts: I receive a letter from the public affairs director dated June 24, 2005. It stated that gaining access to the information would cost me $148.60. This is a breakdown of the fee:
“This fee is assessed in accordance with 950 CMR 32.06 (i)(e) and represents a search fee of $74.30 (four hours of staff time for searching at $18.14 per hour); estimated cost of copying approximately five pages at $.20 per page; and the cost of postage at approximately $0.74.”
This fee is far beyond what I expected. I call the public affairs director to ask if there was a way that I could have the fee waived or lowered.
After lunch, I have a message from the director saying, “You need to pay to get this information. A lot of journalists request FOIA, so you fall into the category of — you need to pay.”
Well, I suppose this is the end of the line for getting the information from Massachusetts. I imagine if I opted to pay the fee, I eventually would have received the information. I guess I’ll never know.
Wednesday, July 6
INDIANA: The public information officer called to tell me he faxed over my information — right on time. The fax contains statistics for Class A, B and C charges. At first it takes me a few minutes to figure out how to read the chart, but the important thing is that I got my information.
Thursday, July 7
CALIFORNIA: The California Department of Corrections is very late in responding to my request. According to state law, I should have heard some sort of response by June 29. I call the communications director to find out what is causing the delay.
When she answers, I introduce myself. She says she remembers me and recalls receiving my letter. She says she passed it off to the prison to gather the information.
“I have no idea how far along they are,” she says. She offers to call and find out.
I ask her to have someone from the prison contact me, since the law states I should have already received a response. Giving her my fax and office number, she says that won’t be a problem.
(That was the last that I heard from California.)
TEXAS: The open records act coordinator e-mailed me from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. It is interesting that Texas has a specific person designated to work with open record requests. She sent me the information via e-mail in attached documents that list statistics and the definitions of the offenses. In the end, Texas was easy to deal with. I had only to fax my request and have the confirmation and the information was in my hands.
Tagged under: FOI