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PLN sues California prison system over lack of response to public records request

Monterey Herald, Dec. 19, 2007.
PLN sues California prison system over lack of response to public records request - Monterey Herald 2007

California Department of Corrections sued over records
Sacramento: Data requests unanswered, says magazine publisher


Herald Salinas Bureau
Article Last Updated: 12/19/2007 08:57:31 AM PST

The publisher of a legal magazine for prison inmates and their attorneys has filed a lawsuit against California's corrections department, saying the agency failed to answer a request for records about payoffs in legal settlements.

The suit was filed Tuesday on behalf of Prison Legal News in Sacramento County Superior Court, and named California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary James Tilton as a defendant.

The magazine's publisher said his lawyers sent a request to the department for records having to do with payments made as a result of lawsuits filed against the department since January 2002.

The magazine also requested records from lawsuits filed for "overdetention" — holding individuals beyond their legal release date.

Paul Wright, publisher of the 7,000-circulation Prison Legal News, said the records request was sent by certified mail Nov. 9.

"We have the receipt," he said. To date, he said, he has received no response.

According to the California Public Records Act, government agencies have to respond to public records requests within 10 days, although they can take longer to actually provide the documents. In some cases, agencies can deny the release of records, based on various exemptions the law allows, but they still are required to respond.

Wright said he feels the CDCR is stonewalling.

"There's no legal basis for not giving us the records. It's about the expenditure of public funds," Wright said. "We're talking

about taxpayer money here. This isn't someone's secret payout fund. They have to be accountable to the public."

Department spokesman Bill Sessa said after business hours Tuesday that he would check the status of the letter with the department's public records unit today.

The suit comes on the heels of an "overdetention" lawsuit filed last week by the Service Employees International Union Local 1000. Representatives of the union's 15,000 members who work in California prisons allege the department is so far behind on paperwork that thousands of prisoners might be held past their legal release dates.

The day that suit was filed, Assemblywoman Anna Caballero, D-Salinas, and other officials toured Monterey County's two state prisons and met with SEIU employees there.

In the past few years, state courts have ordered release dates re-calculated for prisoners serving simultaneous sentences for both violent and nonviolent crimes because the time off allowed for "good behavior" for each is different.

The SEIU lawsuit alleges the department ignored those court orders and has only re-calculated release dates for prisoners who have individually sued the CDCR.

But in an August memo sent to prison wardens around the state, the department's director of adult institutions, Lea Ann Chrones, wrote that some 33,000 inmates had been identified as possibly eligible for earlier release.

After that suit was filed, corrections spokesman Seth Unger told The Associated Press the department plans to hire more staff members to start reviewing how many inmates are affected.

"It's possible there could be 33,000 cases that have to be re-evaluated. That doesn't mean 33,000 inmates would be released," Unger said.

Sessa said the department acknowledges it is short on personnel.

"In the past, we weren't successful in getting the financing to increase the staff," he said.

Sessa said that to his knowledge, no inmate has been released early because of the erroneous calculations. And if any inmates have been released later than they should, he said, the problem isn't widespread.

"We're talking about taking a couple months off a multi-year sentence. If there is a case, it's an exception and a rare instance," he said.

Earlier in the year, the corrections department settled another case filed by Prison Legal News and was ordered to permit greater access to the magazine and other publications inside California prisons.

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