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Court deems federal inmates' jail time a ‘private’ matter

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         ILLINOIS         Freedom of Information         Feb 13, 2002    

Court deems federal inmates’ jail time a ‘private’ matter

  • A federal judge ruled that names of federal inmates held in an Illinois county jail must remain secret because of the stigma disclosure of their names would cause them.

The names of federal inmates in an Illinois county jail do not have to be released, a federal district judge ruled on Feb. 7, stopping a reporter’s attempt to find out who was incarcerated in a local jail.

U.S. District Judge Richard Mills rejected efforts by reporter Edith Brady-Lunny of The Pantagraph in Bloomington, Ill., to find out who was housed in the local jail, saying disclosure would intrude upon personal privacy because of the stigma of having been in jail.

Brady-Lunny said she believes the community has a right to know who is in the DeWitt County jail, partly because it receives federal dollars for housing federal inmates along with local inmates. In response to her October 2000 request under the Illinois FOI Act, Sheriff Roger Massey gave her names of local inmates but refused to give those of federal inmates.

After she sued in DeWitt County Court in Clinton, the federal government intervened to move the case to a federal district court in Springfield.

There, Mills ruled that disclosing inmates’ names would be “an unreasonable invasion of privacy.” He said some inmates under federal control are merely witnesses and detainees who have not been charged with or convicted of crimes and that releasing their names “would stigmatize these individuals and cause what could be irreparable damage to their reputations.”

Mills’ reasoning echoed that of U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft who has refused to release names of persons detained after the events of Sept. 11 in order to protect their “privacy.”

A coalition of civil-liberty groups sued the Department of Justice for release of the names.

But Mills said that even if the inmates’ privacy interests were not a sufficient basis for withholding the names, they should be withheld because disclosure would pose safety risks, given that inmates have “gang ties, interest in escape and motive for violence against informants and rivals.”

The government said a federal Bureau of Prisons regulation forbids disclosure of lists of federal inmates and an Illinois law exempts from mandatory disclosure any information made confidential by federal or state law or rule.

Brady-Lunny’s attorney argued in court that the federal law governing rulemaking states that it “does not authorize withholding information or limiting the availability of records to the public.”

During the course of the litigation, a federal prisoner, who once had claimed that God told him to kill doctors who perform abortions, escaped from the DeWitt County jail by springing a lock with a comb and wriggling through a roof drain. He was loose for 10 months.

Brady-Lunny said many of the federal inmates in the local jail eventually serve time in maximum security prisons. If the community is going to take risks to hold such inmates, it needs to know who they are dealing with, she said.

(Brady-Lunny v. Massey; Media Counsel: Don Craven, Springfield, Ill.) RD

© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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