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D.C. FOIA Called Complex, Time-Consuming, Befuddling and Sometimes Fruitless in New Jail Study

dcogcadmin | June 15, 2015

Advocates for reform of DC Jail reported Thursday (11) on six recommendations about facilities and programs, but they save the seventh to blast the District government for how hard it had been to track down facts about the Jail and the privately-run annex, CTF.

“Public records are difficult to obtain,” wrote the authors. “The process for obtaining public records regarding the District’s correctional system is complex, time-consuming, occasionally befuddling, and sometimes fruitless.”  

The 53-page reportfrom the D.C. Prisoners Rights Project of the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights & Urban Affairs, was released at a press event at the Covington & Burling law firm that contributed staff for the research. The analysis was overseen by an advisory committee of retired and senior D.C. and federal judges, John Ferren, Rufus King, Ricardo Urbina and Patricia Wald.

A final section of the report detailed the researchers’ access problems that will sound familiar to other DC FOIA requesters including many delays and uninformed agency staff denying existence of records even before searching. Many of the project requests “did not result in any substantive response at all.”  

Especially difficult was access to records of the D.C. Jail annex, the Correctional Treatment Facility, operated under a 20-year contract awarded by the D.C. mayor and Council in 1997 to national private prison giant, Corrections Corp. of America. Said the report, “All our efforts to obtain the reports and audits authorized by the DC-CCA Contract were unsuccessful.”

The authors urged a general “review of the District’s freedom of information laws and policies” since there appeared to them (in a passage also drawing on the Open Government Coalition’s reviews of D.C. agencies’ FOIA processing) to be little oversight to “adequately assess whether FOIA requests are accurately processed.”  

The study team ended with a message perhaps intended for the Office of Open Government and the D.C. Council, calling for assessing agency performance to get a better view “whether individual agency FOIA units require additional staffing, training or oversight. Public information officers should not be permitted to ignore requests [or] flout deadlines without explanation.”

Reporting the study findings of alarming jail conditions were Andrea Noble in the Washington Times and Abigail Hauslohner in the Washington Post.