This week, a judge ruled that Allan Parmelee, an inmate at the McNeil Island Corrections Center in Washington state, can continue to request public records under the state Public Records Act. According to the Associated Press, Parmelee has requested hundreds of public records about the state troopers, prosecutors, judges, prison guards, and others who incarcerated him for firebombing two cars.
The judge’s ruling responded to prosecutor Dan Satterberg’s petition to ignore Parmelee’s pending records requests and bar him from making new ones. Satterberg noted that while he is a proponent of open government, “Parmelee has a long history of using the Public Records Act to try and intimidate and harass my deputies and other criminal justice system employees."
Others support Satterberg’s assertion that Parmalee was using the requests to intimidate people. Former assistant attorney general Brian Maxey spoke of Parmelee’s promise to visit to his house, and assistant attorney general Sara Olson received a letter from Parmelee that referenced the firebombings and accused her of acting "so unprofessionally (as) to invite some similar response." (Parmelee had previously requested records about Maxey and Olson, as well as six other current and former assistant attorneys general.)
Because the law provides adequate safeguards against this kind of behavior, the judge’s decision seems appropriate.
Washington’s Public Records Act has built-in protections against the disclosure of personal information (see Wash. Rev. Code § 42.56.050). Thus, Parmelee’s requests for personal information about any of his targets can be denied within the boundaries of the law. Moreover, Satterberg is a prosecutor—after hearing of Parmelee’s threatening words against Maxey and Olson, couldn’t he bring appropriate charges (e.g. harassment) against Parmelee? To ask a court to stop Parmelee from making any additional requests seems like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Now consider the case of Joseph Giarratano, an inmate at the Red Onion State Prison in Virginia. Within the same week that Washington state upheld Parmelee’s right to request public records, a unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit denied Giarratano the ability to request any public records by upholding a provision barring a prisoner from making a request under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act. (Unlike Washington, Virginia bars a prisoner from using its public records law.) Virginia is not alone in this prohibition; for example, inmates in Michigan are also precluded from making any requests under Michigan’s freedom of information laws. See Mich. Comp. Laws § 15.231.
According to the Fourth Circuit decision, Giarratano has hepatitis C and does not believe that he is receiving appropriate treatment. Giarratano challenged the constitutionality of Virginia’s exclusionary provision in order to request information about the prison system's treatment protocol for hepatitis C. He argued that the treatment protocol would allow him to make informed decisions about his health and aid in any litigation he might pursue based on Virginia’s treatment of his condition.
On the surface, the rationale for denying Parmelee’s requests seems more obvious than for denying Giarratano’s requests. Yet the two states have taken radically different postures in their public policy approach to this issue. Washington seems to recognize a basic right to access public records, safeguarded by specific protections, whereas Virginia has opted for a more blanket approach stripping prisoners of any such right. Which model you prefer likely depends on whether you view the purpose of prison as more punitive or rehabilitative—that is, to what degree should prisoners retain the rights of free citizens?