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Sunshine Week: Should prisoners have access to the Freedom of Information Act?

Mar 16, 2016

Credit Wikimedia Commons

It’s Sunshine Week, which was created to raise awareness and appreciation for our access to public information and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). However, there is one segment of our population that is not allowed to use FOIA: prisoners.

Daniel Manville joined Stateside to explore this issue. Manville is an associate clinical professor at the Michigan State University law school, where he directs the Civil Rights Clinic. He has plenty of first-hand experience with this issue, as a former inmate and jailhouse lawyer himself.

Manville spent three and a half years in prison during the 1970s, an era that he describes as the beginning of the development of prisoner’s rights. While he was incarcerated, he provided legal assistance to fellow inmates who either didn’t have access to an attorney, or didn’t have the skills to analyze their legal options.
 

An educated public is the best means to prevent the government from abusing the process

 Soon after being released from prison, Manville started a “jailhouse lawyer law firm." He believes he was likely one of the first to bring a lawsuit involving FOIA, which became law in 1976. After requesting public documents from the Department of Corrections and being ignored, Manville sued. The court ruled in his favor, and was awarded $500 in damages.       

In 1994, the Michigan Legislature amended the law to say that prisoners are excluded from FOIA.

According to Manville, one of the best examples of prisoners being hurt by that came when Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003. The federal law requires prison officials to investigate allegations of sexual assault by guards or inmates.

When inmates submit a complaint, after the investigation is complete, the prisoner is only given a one-page document that tells them whether or not there was sufficient evidence to support the complaint. If a prisoner wants to file a lawsuit, without FOIA they're usually unable to determine whether or not they have a strong enough case to go to court.

Some  argue that if prisoners are given access to FOIA, some would take advantage of it and waste time and resources on weak cases.

“There’s always some people who will abuse anything that exists,” said Manville. “We have legislators that have affairs, and then they force their staff members to lie, but we never see the legislature imposing restrictions so that married people cannot get elected to the legislature. What we’re asking for is the use of common sense.”              

Manville said one way to deter frivolous FOIA requests would be to charge a fee, and force people to prove there is a legitimate reason for the request.

“If people are not informed about what the government is doing, then the government can engage in abusing the process,” said Manville. “An educated public is the best means to prevent the government from abusing the process.”

Listen to the full interview below to hear more about the issues regarding prisoners and their lack of access to FOIA.