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PLN's WA DOC public records suit and settlement profiled

Washington Law & Politics, Dec. 1, 2008.
PLN's WA DOC public records suit and settlement profiled - Washington Law & Politics 2008

Prison Legal News v. Washington Department of Corrections

Washington Law & Politics - Winter 2008

Any love between Prison Legal News and the Washington State Department of Corrections grew a little colder last July after the two parties reached a record settlement in a public-records case.

At issue was editor Paul Wright's request for information on the medical care of inmates in Washington state prisons. Wright was concerned when he learned two inmates seeking medical care had died and eight others had been maimed, allegedly at the hands of DOC staff. The DOC released some documents, but the names of the medical providers were redacted.

Wright and his attorneys at Davis Wright Tremaine sued. In 2005, the state Supreme Court ruled that redacting the names violated the law. It ordered the DOC to release the documents and pay penalties and lawyer fees.

The following year, the DOC admitted it had destroyed some of the documents, which the state Supreme Court viewed as a second violation of the law.

"After we won in state Supreme Court, we had the DOC admitting they destroyed original documents," says Wright, 42, who was in Seattle in September to receive this year's James Madison Award from the Washington Coalition for Open Government. The document destruction, he says, "pumped the settlement up another $50,000."

In the end, the DOC agreed to pay $541,000: $200,000 to PLN and $341,000 to Wright's attorneys. It was the largest public-records case settlement in state history. And it was the latest chapter in an ongoing feud between

the DOC and Wright, who was incarcerated in Washington state for 17 years on a murder charge, released in 2003, and now runs the national monthly prisoners-rights newsletter from an office in Vermont, though PLN is based in Seattle. In August 2005. Wright and his attorneys reached a $442,500 settlement with the DOC after it prohibited inmates from receiving PLN mailers. — Todd Matthews

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