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Coverage of PLN's public records suit against Marshall County, TN

Marshall Tribune, May 21, 2014.

Lawsuit filed against Sheriff's Department

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

From Staff Reports

A lawsuit filed Monday in Marshall County Chancery Court alleges that the Marshall County Sheriff's Department has violated the Tennessee Open Records Act by refusing to provide copies of records to the public in accordance with state law.

Alex Friedmann, managing editor of the monthly "Prison Legal News" began asking Sheriff Norman Dalton for records relating to Marshall County Jail in February. He requested the documents be provided by mail or email, and offered to pay all reasonable expenses.

The Sheriff's Department refused to provide the documents in any form, stating that Friedmann must appear in person in order to access public records.

Friedmann asked the Tennessee Office of Open Records Counsel for an opinion, and Elisha Hodge replied, in part, that "the citizen's personal presence before the record custodian is not required ..."

Friedmann applied again for the records in late March, on the form provided by the Sheriff's Department.

"Please note that this is a request for copies of the records described ... I am requesting that said records be emailed (or mailed) to me after I submit payment. As stated by the Office of Open Records Counsel ... 'If a requestor requests that the records be mailed to him/her, the records custodian is required to mail the records after the requestor pays the cost of delivering the records,'" wrote Friedman in the letter which accompanied the form.

Evidently, the Sheriff's Department did not provide the requested records, because Friedman's next move was to engage local attorney Robert Dalton to file suit.

"It's unfortunate that cases like this have to end up in court," wrote Robert Dalton in a press release. "The rights of the public must always be our paramount consideration. We all hope that our government officials will do the right thing, but when they don't, someone has to be willing to stand up and fight for our rights."

When contacted for comment, Norman Dalton said county attorney Bill Haywood was handling the case, and has copies of all the relevant correspondence. An initial court appearance is anticipated next month.

The records Friedmann requested include information on

* the policy regarding mail sent to, or from, prisoners

* the policy regarding internal grievance or complaints procedures

* the policies relating to medical care for prisoners, including who will provide the care, and what medicines are kept at the jail

* information on telephone service for the inmates, including costs to prisoners (or their family members) and what, if any, commission is received by the county for this service.

According to Wikipedia, "'Prison Legal News' is a monthly magazine and on-line periodical published since May 1990. Prison Legal News primarily reports on criminal justice issues and prison and jail-related civil litigation, mainly in the United States, and is a project of the Human Rights Defense Center, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. 'Prison Legal News' was originally inspired by the need for prisoners and their families to have a voice in criminal justice policy and to provide timely, accurate news about justice-related issues and progressive reform efforts. PLN has been both admired and disliked for its strong advocacy of prisoner rights, including its extensive litigation involving jails and prison systems."

The Marshall County case is one of five brought by PLN in Tennessee, according to their website.

PLN's business and editorial office is in Lake Worth, Fla. but Friedmann's Tennessee office is in Antioch.

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