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Prison paper wins access to medical staff discipline records

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   WASHINGTON   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   July 28, 2005

Prison paper wins access to medical staff discipline records

  • State prison officials cannot withhold the medical records of unidentified prisoners or the identities of prison medical workers in disciplinary records, the Washington Supreme Court ruled.

July 28, 2005  ·   The identities of prison medical staff investigated for misconduct and medical information about unidentified prisoners are public records that must be disclosed under state open records law, the Washington Supreme Court ruled July 14 in a case brought by a prison newspaper editor.

The court overturned lower court decisions, ruling that the law requires narrow interpretation of exemptions in keeping records secret. The court rejected arguments from the state Department of Corrections that prisoners could be identified from their medical records even if their names had been removed and that the disciplinary records fall under a law enforcement exemption to the open records law.

Inmate Paul Wright, editor of the Prison Legal News, requested prison medical documents seven times in 2000. His requests included the medical records of prisoners with all identifying information removed, and the disciplinary and criminal records of prison medical staff.

The Department of Corrections refused to release any of the prisoners’ medical records, even though Wright had requested records without any identifying information. The department argued that the prisoners knew each other well enough that they might be able to determine the identity of the inmate in the records.

Writing for the high court, Justice Richard B. Sanders said the department’s “blanket approach” to the open records law’s health care privacy exemption was overbroad. The court instead instructed prison officials to look at the records on a case-by-case basis to determine if a prisoner could be identified by his medical records.

The Department of Corrections also refused to release any identifying information contained in prison medical staff misconduct reports, redacting the names and claiming the secrecy was necessary under a public records exemption that veils all investigative records “essential to effective law enforcement.” The court held that the medical misconduct investigations were not conducted for a “law enforcement purpose,” and therefore the names could not be redacted.

“The prison system had argued that pretty much anything it touched became part of its law enforcement mission, and they could black things out under this fairly broad discretionary exemption,” said Michele Earl-Hubbard, an attorney for the Prison Legal News. “The court said this was medical misconduct. This was personnel. This was not law enforcement. It narrowed the kinds of arguments agencies can make regarding withholding a public record.”

Hubbard said she thought that because the requester was an inmate, the trial judge ignored the provision in the records act that requires exemptions to be applied narrowly.

“The trial judge had said he was going to broadly construe these exemptions and give great deference to the Department of Corrections just because he was dealing with an inmate,” she said. “The law didn’t allow him to do that. It said you have to treat requesters all the same. You can’t look at who they are or what they plan to do with the records.”

Three other justices filed a concurring opinion. The case will return to a trial court, which will determine the amount of costs and attorney fees to award Prison Legal News.

(Prison Legal News, Inc. v. Department of Corrections, Media Counsel: Michele Earl-Hubbard and Alison Page Howard, Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, Seattle)AG

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