Pa. Right to Know Law gets new scrutiny

House bill aims to cut inmates' access to data

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HARRISBURG -- State prisoners are among the most frequent users of Pennsylvania's Right to Know Law, filing more than 1,500 informational requests last year.

But a pair of bills in the state House could curb or outright end inmates' use of the open records law, which aims to improve government transparency and provide access to government information.

Inmates filed 1,527 Right to Know requests with the Department of Corrections last year. The number of requests filed has steadily increased from the 547 requests filed by inmates since 2009, the year the revised law took effect, according to statistics from the Department of Corrections.

A majority of the requests from inmates are for information regarding their own sentencing, upcoming prison menus and their own medical information, said Susan McNaughton, a spokeswoman for the department.

Corrections handles the most Right to Know requests of any state agency, said Terry Mutchler, executive director of the Office of Open Records.

"I think they do a really good job of responding in a timely manner and in the spirit of the law," Ms. Mutchler said. "I once saw them respond to a request that was basically written on a napkin."

Inmates account for about 31 percent of the total appeals -- if a request is initially denied by the state agency -- handled by the Office of Open Records, according to the agency's most recent annual report. About 56 percent are from citizens and about 4 percent are from the media. Of the four individuals statewide who have filed the most appeals with the Office of Open Records, two are inmates.

One bill, currently in the House State Government Committee, would amend the law so in the case of the request of any public record "containing personal identification information of an employee of the Department of Corrections, such as their full name or home address, the agency would be required to determine if the requester has been convicted of a felony in Pennsylvania.

"If the requester is determined to be a felon, the agency would deny access to the portion of the record containing the personal information," according to the legislation.

Another broader bill would permit agencies to deny Right to Know requests made by anyone incarcerated in a federal, state or county prison.

This proposed legislation "results from a serious situation in my county where an inmate is using the Right to Know law to harass and intimidate a judge and other law enforcement personnel who were involved in his arrest and conviction," states a memo circulated by the bill's sponsor, Rep. RoseMarie Swanger, R-Lebanon.

"He has also used information he garnered to negatively affect the credit rating of the wife of a county detective. Any legitimate information needed by an inmate to pursue an appeal is available through another existing statute."

Ms. Swanger said the 163 requests filed by this inmate are not what the law was intended to do.

Both bills were discussed last week by a state House committee.

"I'm very grateful that I don't work at corrections," joked Ms. Mutchler at the hearing, describing the high volume of inmate requests handled by the agency.

Ms. Mutchler said some other states have a separate system that allows inmates to still obtain some information outside of the Right to Know system used by regular citizens.

"Prisoners, once they've been incarcerated, they lose a lot of rights. I don't think they should be allowed to use the Right to Know Law once they're incarcerated," said Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, chair of the State Government Committee that convened the hearing. "I think all access should be shut off until they're done serving their time."

But groups that advocate for prisoners' rights say that's unreasonable.

The bill "further removes inmates from participating in democracy," according to a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania criticizing one of the bills.

"Blocking inmates' ability to use the open records law sets a new precedent for carving out entire groups of people that the Office of Open Records or a particular agency finds irritating. ... This sets a troubling precedent." Only Michigan completely prohibits inmates from participating in its open records law, according to the ACLU.

Ms. Mutchler said cutting off prisoners completely from the Right to Know system could be legally problematic.

A Senate bill would allow inmates to still make requests, but for a more limited category of record.

"Inmates, no question, have been much more frequent users of the law than anybody anticipated," said Eric Arneson, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, who championed the creation of the Right to Know law.

Other House bills under consideration could exempt the names and addresses of jurors from the law, make the home addresses of public school teachers exempt and set up separate fee systems for those requesting records for a commercial purpose.

Mr. Metcalfe said he intends to hold another committee hearing on Right to Know issues in the fall with the goal of seeing legislation enacted by the end of the year.

Ms. McNaughton noted that inmates also can speak to staff to obtain information or make a formal written request.

"Outside of the [Right to Know] process, we receive and respond to many, many general letters from inmates on a variety of issues," she said in an email.

electionspa - state

Kate Giammarise: kgiammarise@post-gazette.com, 1-717-787-4254 or on Twitter @KateGiammarise.


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