Inmate Can’t Toss Limits to Public Records Access

     CHICAGO (CN) – Wisconsin did not violate a prisoner’s First Amendment rights by confiscating vendor records that may have confirmed his suspicions about illegally overpriced canteen goods, the 7th Circuit ruled.
     Believing that officials at Jackson Correctional Institution had inflated canteen costs by more than 10 percent, inmate Jeffery Akright sought purchase invoices, copies of canteen policies and a list of average costs.
     But Akright could not make the request himself because of Wisconsin’s open-records law, so he asked his grandmother to get the list for him.
     When Grandma succeeded and mailed the records to Akright, prison officials intercepted the package, confiscated it as contraband and placed Akright in disciplinary segregation for attempting to possess contraband.
     He filed suit, alleging that the policy violated his rights to the information.
     Prison officials argued that the policy is intended to reduce the volume of burdensome record requests and to prevent inmates from seeking information about the prison security operations. Additionally, they argued, giving inmates access to vendor account information could facilitate fraud and smuggling.
     U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb ruled in favor of the prison, finding that the policy was “reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.”
     “Although the court was skeptical that concerns of fraud and smuggling justified the policy, it determined that forbidding inmates from obtaining prison records through relatives prevented prisoners from circumventing the open-records law, which in turn helped to limit the burden of frivolous prisoner requests and preserve oversight of the information distributed to inmates,” the 7th Circuit summarized.
     Akright also claimed that the justifications were pretextual, calling the reasons “post-hoc explanations,” but three-judge appellate panel rejected this argument. The court found “no reason ‘why one bad motive would spoil a rule that is adequately supported by good reasons,’ like prison security.”

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