The Georgia Department of Corrections: the agency that’s long been plagued with secrets, cover ups, and excuses under the guise that the general public doesn’t give a darn. The public wants their prisons out of sight, out of mind, and operation under the harshest of environments. The result of that, however, is a granted authority to the government to keep much about a state agency hidden from public scrutiny, and regardless of the agency, that is a recipe for disaster.
Most people don’t know how difficult it is to obtain information from the Georgia Department of Corrections – or any state agency for that matter – and often times the people who are looking into issues don’t have the means or the knowledge to know what to ask for. It certainly isn’t something our elected officials have to deal with, either, and the people we elect are allowing political correctness to stand in the way of transparency and accountability. Republicans are supposed to be ‘tough on crime!’ you know.
I don’t necessarily blame our state legislators, I just think they’re misinformed. They believe they’re well connected to all state agencies because they have the ability to pick up the phone and call any agency head, ask them questions, and gather data in a timely manner. They often don’t have to go through the avenues the public does and it’s easy forget that the agency heads are going to tell them what they want to hear. Though we can’t blame them for what they don’t know, they carry the responsibility of failing to want to know more.
A little background.
When you attempt to file an Open Records Request with the Georgia Department of Corrections, they give you as much of the runaround as any other state and local government entities does: making it difficult without violating open government laws.
I recently sought to obtain information on one of South Georgia’s maximum security prisons. I called the agency headquarters in Atlanta to find out with whom I needed to speak in order to obtain the information. After a long hold and questions relating to who I was, where I was calling from, and why, I was told I could fax my memo (don’t have one) or mail what I needed (I know how that goes…”Sorry, we never received it.”) After pressing to speak with a supervisor, I was eventually told I could email my request since I am not able to file my request in person.
I followed the instructions and when when I received my first answer to my request, I was told estimated costs would exceed $50 and the request could take more than the allotted 3 days for fulfillment. [I requested inmate deaths in one prison for a 2 year period as well as a list of assaults on guards for the same 2 year period at the same prison.] The question the agency wanted to know was weather I still wanted to continue with my request. When I said “yes”, I was emailed my documentation within 24 hours and was told that it would be provided for free as a “one-time courtesy.”
It sounds simple and there wasn’t any blatant wrongdoing, but this is par for the course for open records requests. I don’t doubt for a second that entities try to intimidate people out of completing their requests. First, it will take an extended period of time to complete and cost a considerable amount of money, but following firm pressure, I have two simple excel spreadsheets in my inbox free of charge?
About those records.
When I reviewed the spreadsheets provided, I found that I cannot look up the inmates who died in state custody because following their death, the Georgia Department of Corrections deletes their profile from the inmate search database. There is no way to check their date of birth, for what reason they were incarcerated, why they died, or any other information relating to the inmate. Once they’re dead, it’s as if they never existed. Is it appropriate to restrict public access on information of people who died in the custody of the state? Many don’t believe so. Do we delete information for children under the watch of DFACS? What about those with mental health issues being monitored by the state? Dead voters?
I also asked for information about lockdowns in Georgia State Prison in my request. I was told that if I believed there was a specific form or procedure related to what would cause a lockdown in a facility, I needed to request that documentation and re-file my request. The answer put simply: I need to request a form I don’t know the name of and I can obtain the name of the form through an additional open records request. What I came to learn is that there often isn’t any paperwork filed for a lockdown, but instead, it’s instituted at the discretion of the Warden. While I don’t see the problem with the discretion of a Warden, why does the state not require specific procedures and documentation of EVERY action of an inmate?
This is a lot of rambling to say…the public should have complete access to information pertaining to the operations of our prison facilities in the state. It isn’t unusual for agencies to resist offering public records, but the Department of Corrections has illustrated that they can circumvent providing information that other state agencies cannot. The only way around that is the General Assembly.
This isn’t about sticking it criminals and it isn’t about making sure you never have to hear about people who have caused others harm. This is simply about the veil of secrecy the Georgia DoC hides behind.
Taxpayers have a right and duty to examine how tax dollars are being used and how people fully-supported by the state are living. The Georgia legislature has an obligation to ensure that barring security and HIPPA concerns, the Georgia Department of Corrections is an open book. The Georgia General Assembly needs to reform laws relating to what is available to the public.
Proper protocols of documentation should be put in place and the public should have access to:
- Why a facility is placed on lockdown
- Inmate files on the database indefinitely – anyone who has ever been incarcerated in Georgia, dead or alive.
- Redacted files on inmates that show any disciplinary action taken against an inmate.
- Records of assaults on guards and other facility employees that include the name of the inmate