Records request comes with a price for lawyer seeking answers
Beacon Hill hearing Tuesday will focus on access, impediments to government files
After correctional officers told Patricia DeJuneas she would have to lift her shirt and show her bra to get past prison security, the appellate lawyer filed a public records request. She wanted to know, among other things, how many other female attorneys trying to visit incarcerated clients had consented to such searches, and whether they had later filed complaints.
The state Department of Correction told her she could have the information for $4,302.60 — the cost, the agency’s letter to her said, of making copies and paying a paralegal to track down the information.
“The idea that we have to pay someone to look up records that show how we’ve been victimized is really insulting,” DeJuneas said.
High fees to obtain public records are not uncommon in Massachusetts, where some legislators are trying to strengthen access under the state’s public records law. A legislative hearing will be held Tuesday, when civil liberties groups, government watchdogs, and news organizations plan to lobby to change a law they say is archaic and does little to help the public learn about the work of government institutions.
In the case involving DeJuneas, state officials acknowledged that the information she asked for is public. But they said her request involved more than 2,200 pages of documents that include names of inmates, visitors, and lawyers that would have to be blacked out to comply with exemptions to the state’s public records laws.
“Those documents must be manually redacted, which adds to the cost of providing the records,” said Felix Browne, spokesman for the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security.
Matthew R. Segal, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said DeJuneas’s case underscores the flaws in the state’s public records laws.
“Here we are where we have a situation where Department of Correction officials did something that’s wrong,” he said. “One way to deal with that is to say, ‘Oh, we’re sorry. We’re going to look at our own records to see how many female attorneys have been treated this way, how they’ve been treated and we’re going to make it public.’ . . . But instead what we have is a hiding behind the public records law, which keeps the public in the dark about this problem and which stands in the way of solving it.”
The state’s public records law, which has had few changes since 1973, needs to be modernized, said state Representative Peter V. Kocot, cochairman of the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight, which is holding Tuesday’s State House hearing.
Kocot is one of the lead sponsors on a bill that calls for designating a records access officer at each government agency, with the sole job of streamlining requests for public records. The bill would also require electronic records to be provided in a digital, searchable format, and would cap the fees for copies of documents.
“We’re trying to move to a system where taxpayers and the general public can economically and quickly learn what they want to know about government and how it works,” he said.
DeJuneas said one goal of her request was to find out whether the same correctional officers were conducting or ordering inappropriate searches. Women visiting prisons are searched by female officers.
She first raised the issue in February, after a correctional officer at MCI-Norfolk told her to “shake her bra” out after a metal detector went off because of its underwire. DeJuneas refused, and was later allowed into the medium-security prison to visit a prospective client.
Correction officials said officers would no longer ask female lawyers to lift their bras if they set off the alarm. But DeJuneas said officers at MCI-Norfolk wanted to search her again on May 16 when she returned to the prison to visit a client and her bra set off the alarm. She asked for a wand search, but instead, she said, they asked her to comply with a “further” search. They declined to tell her what that would entail and she refused to consent, according to a letter she wrote Daniel Bennett, the state’s public safety secretary.
Bennett’s spokesman said state officials are reviewing search procedures at prisons.
“The Executive Office of Public Safety and Security and the Department of Correction are currently clarifying regulations regarding searches of attorneys at DOC facilities to ensure attorneys’ personal privacy is protected without compromising prison security,” Browne said.
The state attorney general’s office has assigned a civil rights lawyer to review DeJuneas’s complaints and similar complaints by other female attorneys.
A spokeswoman said the attorney general’s office is working with the Department of Correction and the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security to determine whether any prison search policies should be changed.