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Utah's Right to Know
Donald Meyers
Donald W. Meyers writes about open-government issues for The Salt Lake Tribune. He is also the site manager of utahsright.com, the Tribune's online database of public records. He is also a member of the Society of Professional Journalists' National Freedom of Information Committee and sits on the board of directors of the Utah Foundation for Open Government.

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Records Committee: Inmates deserve access to records, but not unlimited free copies

Utah State Prison inmates may not be able to get a lot of free documents, but they deserve access.

The State Records Committee ruled Thursday that inmate Michael Luesse, who is serving a sentence for felony shoplifting, did not deserve a fee waiver for the policy manuals and other records he requested, but he should have access.

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Luesse, who submitted his requests under the state Government Records Access and Management Act in May, was challenging a policy enacted in June that limited indigent inmates to 100 free pages of records a year.

In a phone interview, Utah Department of Corrections spokesman Steve Gehrke said the policy was an effort to cut back on the number of "frivolous" records requests made by inmates. Gehrke said some inmates have made a "hobby" of requesting records, which he said was costing the department time and money to fill.

The department receives about 100 requests a week, and Luesse has made 98 records requests this year.

Some people may think that 100 pages is a lot of records, and inmates should be satisifed with that, it is not too hard to run up a 100-page records request. Just ask for a copy of the Legislature’s budget bills, with amendments, and you’re easily there.

While the board agreed that the department can deny fee waivers — the Legislature made granting fee waivers discretionary, even in cases where there is a clear public benefit from releasing the data — it can’t use fees to deny access.

"I don’t think copies have to be given, but access has to be given, and in this instance, access is being denied," said committee member Patricia Smith-Mansfield.

Corrections officials say that access becomes a security issue. While there are 33 policy manuals in the prison library, the remainder of the 350 books, and other documents, are not there.

But Committee Chairwoman Betsy Ross offered a solution: a computer terminal allowing inmates access to the records.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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