An indigent inmate lost his challenge of a new Department of Corrections policy that limits the number of documents it provides free of charge, though the State Records Committee said Thursday the prison must find a way for inmates to review records they can't afford to get copied.
Inmate Michael Luesse sought relief from the committee after administrators refused to waive copy fees for documents, including personal write-ups and policy manuals, he requested under the state's Government Records Access and Management Act. He made the three records requests in early May and learned more than a month later that Corrections had a new policy, adopted "out of the blue," that caps free copies at 100 pages per inmate annually.
Matthew Anderson, an assistant attorney general, said Corrections instituted the policy on June 8 to curb excessive and frivolous records requests made by Luesse and about 15 other inmates, most of whom sought fee waivers. The requests strained staff and financial resources.
"You had these inmates requesting hundreds and hundreds of documents," Anderson said. "What the department did to prevent this waste of taxpayer funds was to provide some oversight."
On average, Corrections receives 100 records requests a week from inmates. Some prisoners are frequent filers. Luesse, for example, has made 98 records requests to date in 2012, Anderson told the committee.
Now, once an inmate receives 100 pages of documents at no charge, subsequent records requests are automatically denied and an inmate must pursue an administrative review if he or she wants them for free. If it's a legitimate request, the charge may be waived.
Anderson said Luesse's appeal was denied because the records he wants are available through other means he could request a meeting with a case worker, for example, to look at "chronological notes" that discuss his prison behavior or are "trivial, gee-whiz information" that don't affect his legal rights. One example: a manual describing health care provisions at community correctional facilities and an overview of the department's organization structure.
But committee member Patricia Smith-Mansfield pointed out the state's records law "doesn't care if there is a need for" a document and asked why Corrections doesn't provide access to all of its policy manuals in the inmate library.
"I don't think copies have to be given, but access has to be given, and in this instance, access is being denied," she said.
Records manager Gina Proctor said the prison keeps copies of about 33 of the most pertinent policy manuals in the library, but there isn't room for all 350 manuals there.
Anderson acknowledged the policy's effect would be to make indigent inmates more selective in their requests and that security issues might make it difficult to let them inspect records.
Luesse, who participated in the hearing by phone, argued that having to pay for copies of public documents the prison charges 25 cents a page is a "substantial burden" for indigent inmates like him and creates a disparity between inmates who have money, jobs and family support and those who do not.
"It is my belief that all the policy manuals, all of them, directly affect my rights as an inmate and I should have access to them, all inmates should have access to them," Luesse said. "To me, this is just an attempt by the department to prevent inmates from finding out things and how the department is supposed to operate."
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