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Washington legislators attack PLN's public records access

The Stranger, Jan. 1, 2000.
Washington legislators attack PLN's public records access - The Stranger 2000

PUNISHING PRISONERS

Republicans Go After Inmates' Rights to Information

by Phil Campbell (The Stranger, Seattle, WA)

2000

THE WORK of a prominent prison-rights activist may get harder if Republicans in the Washington state legislature get their way.

State Representative Ida Ballasiotes (R-Mercer Island) is co-sponsoring a bill that would make it impossible for any prison inmate -- federal or local, in-state or out-of-state -- to request state records. Inmates, however, would still have access to their own criminal case records.

The Republicans are using cost-cutting as the bait for their bill. Ballasiotes estimates that the government would save as much as $150,000 a year if they were able to make outright rejections of inmate records requests. It's hardly surprising that Republicans are hyping cost cuts, but please -- treading on constitutional rights in order to shrink government costs is crass and loathsome.

Ballasiotes also hints that this bill is important for security reasons. If it passes, inmates would not be able to get their hands on the personnel files of prison guards. This is only partially valid. The department can use current restrictions to prevent an inmate from finding out guards' addresses or home phone numbers, according to Michael Killeen, a Seattle attorney specializing in open-records law. Inmates can really only see a prison guard's salary and disciplinary record.

But some activists believe Ballasiotes is deliberately targeting one inmate in particular: Paul Wright, a Washington state inmate and the editor of Prison Legal News.

PLN is a 10-year-old, nationally circulated newspaper written by inmates about the American penal system. Wright has been able to scoop the mainstream media on Washington state Department of Corrections stories, primarily because he is so close to the prison system here.

"Paul, by using the Public Disclosure Act, has caused [the department] acute embarrassment," says David Fathi, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services.

Wright, however, is not too concerned with the legislation. "This is just another one of those wacko, bullshit laws," he says from a phone at the Monroe Correctional Center. Wright says if the law passes he will keep doing his job as PLN editor, and ask his wife or a friend outside the prison system to make public-records requests.