The federal Bureau of Prisons was ordered by a U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., on Thursday to either look again for records requested by a legal magazine under the Freedom of Information Act, or prove that its initial search was done properly.
In its lawsuit over the records, Prison Legal News challenged the Bureau’s handling of its 2003 FOIA request. The non-profit magazine initially sought records of lawsuits and claims filed against the Bureau from 1996 to 2003, and requested a processing fee waiver typically granted to the news media, according to the court opinion. The Bureau and the Department of Justice denied the fee waiver request, according to court documents, and in 2005 the magazine filed suit over that denial in federal court in Washington.
The next year, the federal court ruled that the Bureau was to perform the records search without charging the magazine. But once the Bureau released some information to Prison Legal News, the publication questioned whether the Bureau had properly complied more generally with FOIA.
The Bureau argued that it had provided the plaintiff with more than 10,000 pages of relevant records after searching multiple offices, and said any withheld or redacted information was protected under FOIA exemptions.
But the court found that the Bureau had not met its burden in "demonstrating that its search for records was adequate." The Bureau must now either conduct a new records search, the court said, or submit an affidavit declaring that its search was in fact proper.
The Bureau’s "continued failure" to produce public records "is in direct conflict with a recent memo issued by the U.S. Attorney General’s office which directed federal agencies to apply a ‘presumption of openness’ when responding to FOIA requests," said Prison Legal News editor Paul Wright in a press release.