ACLU Battles Dept Of Corrections Over Santa Rosa Correctional Records

August 15, 2013

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida has gone to court to try to get records related to a Panhandle prison, after being rebuffed by a state agency that admits to working with “antiquated” technology.

The ACLU filed a lawsuit this month against the Florida Department of Corrections, claiming the agency rejected public records requests in November and May that involved computerized information about housing assignments and cell or bunk assignments for inmates at Santa Rosa Correctional Institution.

Sara Latshaw, ACLU Northwest Florida regional director, said in an email that it’s “ludicrous” for a government agency to skirt Florida’s public-records laws by pretending employees don’t know how databases work.

“Today, more and more public information is stored in databases instead of reams of paper,” Latshaw said. “Yet the Department of Corrections denies any duty to extract this information because it has not done so before. The truth is that it is 2013 and records like this should be easier to retrieve than ever.”

Latshaw declined to say why the records have been requested.

Misty Cash, the Department of Corrections deputy director of communications, said Tuesday that the state agency doesn’t comment about ongoing litigation. However, she noted the agency is limited by its own technology.

“We have a fabulous IT team and they do everything and anything possible to supply records and things that they can,” Cash said. “However, we have a very antiquated system and often times it’s not easy to use that system and find what is there.”

The ACLU requested two years worth of demographic and housing records from Santa Rosa Correctional on Nov. 29, 2012, only to be told on April 17 that the state agency “disagrees with your position that a query of the department’s database is the same as providing existing public records.”

“A query of the department’s database for specific information that you are seeking appears to be a request for the department to provide information or perform research,” the DOC wrote to the ACLU on April 17.

The ACLU’s housing information request was narrowed on May 23 to data from a single day — the Santa Rosa Correctional demographics from Nov. 30, 2012 — along with an instruction manual and the software name for the database.

The state refused the request on June 21, in part claiming the department doesn’t have to answer questions, perform research, give out public records or create new records “when a requestor seeks information not already contained in an existing record.”

The DOC also noted in a letter on June 21 that the database manual for the department’s Bed Space Management System is confidential and exempted from public disclosure.

According to the ACLU, inmate housing assignments along with cell or bunk assignments are public records, regardless of how they are stored.

“That the past housing assignments and cell or bunk assignments are stored in a database, as opposed to being printed on reams of paper, does not alter the department’s duty,” the lawsuit said.

Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, supported the ACLU, calling the state’s stance “kind of convoluted.”

“The DOC has a constitutional and statutory duty to provide access to its public records,” Petersen said. “The fact that they have stored these records in a manner that makes them irretrievable is their problem.”

by Jim Turner and Dara Kam, The News Service of Florida

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