Mr. Sunshine Is Leaving Prisoners in the Dark

Attorney General Rob McKenna is quietly trying to limit prisoner record requests.

One of his "ongoing priorities," state Attorney General Rob McKenna likes to say, is the promotion of "government accountability by encouraging open access to government." But quietly wending their way through the state Legislature are Senate Bill 6294 and House Bill 3219, companion measures requested by McKenna that seek to restrict the very access—for prisoners, specifically—McKenna loves to tout. Former inmate Paul Wright, now the editor of Prison Legal News, thinks this legislation will discourage the people's right to know and prevent crusaders like him from lawfully seeking government information. If approved, the legislation would change the way compensation is paid when the state violates the public record laws involving prison inmates: Any penalties won in court would be awarded to a crime victim compensation program rather than to the prisoner whose request was improperly handled. McKenna, the self-professed "Mr. Sunshine," maintains that current awards are a "lottery" that attract an unreasonable number of prisoner record requests, which total around 4,000 a year. Hence, the logic behind the new legislation is that if there's no possibility for an inmate payday when courts find the state unlawfully failed to disclose public information, perhaps fewer requests will be made in the first place. In his capacity as PLN editor, Wright last year won a record $541,000 penalty from the state for illegally withholding disciplinary records of state prison medical providers (about $200,000 of the award went to PLN, the rest to legal costs). While Wright is free now, having served 17 years for killing a drug dealer, his records quest began while he was an inmate, editing PLN from his cell. If this proposed law had been in effect at the time, his publication would not have received direct compensation for a long, commendable effort to open state records as the law required; in fact, the effort might never have been made, and McKenna would have been able to withhold not only the records on poor state medical care—one inmate was left to die in his cell—but the fact that the Department of Corrections intentionally destroyed some of the data. "Very few prisoners—four, maybe?—have won public disclosure suits against the DOC in the past few years," Wright says. "And most requests are from prisoners seeking to examine their prison or medical files to get documents they need on their sentencing." McKenna will end long and lawful crusades from within, he says, "and that's what it's really about."

 
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