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Missouri bill would close some Corrections Department records

Missouri bill would close some Corrections Department records

January 30th, 2019 by Joe Gamm in Local News

Critics of House Bill 230, which would close some state government records from public access, said the bill is a violation of the intent of Missouri's Sunshine Law.

Supporters, including its sponsor, state Rep. Chris Dinkins, R-Annapolis, said the bill's purpose is to preserve the safety of Missouri's correctional facilities.

"This is just to make sure that we have safety within our facilities," Dinkins told the House Committee on Corrections and Public Institutions.

About 25 people listened as Dinkins pitched her bill to the committee Tuesday morning.

The bill would exempt certain Corrections department records from public access. It would prevent access to video recordings of facilities, including interior and exterior recordings.

It also would prevent access to audio recordings or transcripts of telephone conversations of offenders confined in correctional centers.

The bill would restrict disclosure of information about staffing patterns, including assignments, locations and similar information about employees within centers.

HB 230 would restrict the public from access to the department's training curriculum on defensive tactics and general information about the operations of correctional centers.

State Rep. Bruce Franks Jr., D-St. Louis, questioned the effort to restrict what information people may receive from the Corrections department through the Sunshine Law.

Newspapers and individuals have exposed issues within the state's prison system through the use of the open records law, Franks said. The wording in the bill paints with a broad brush, he warned.

"Should there be certain restrictions? Absolutely," he said. "But it's a tad bit broad. And if we could go deeper and define certain things, I think it would be better."

The bill is meant to clarify statutes, Adam Albach, legislative liaison for the Corrections department, argued.

"We will not be restricting anything we don't already make public," Albach said.

He said the department is attempting to close records in employee manuals that are "defensive tactics." It's a common practice for law enforcement agencies to close their defensive tactics records, he added. He explained the disclosure of some of a correctional center's operations would threaten safety and security.

"We're speaking to our emergency response protocols. Thus far, we've been successful in keeping those records closed," Albach said.

Disclosure of maintenance issues — such as malfunctioning locking devices, video surveillance cameras or motion lights — could compromise the safety and security of an institution, he said. If debriefings of major incidents within a facility were to become public information, he added, the facility could be made vulnerable.

The American Civil Liberties Union appreciates Dinkins' intent to keep employees, inmates and anyone else involved in correctional centers safe, said Sara Baker, legislative and policy director of the ACLU Missouri chapter.

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"Our issue with House Bill 230 is that it's overly broad," Baker said. "The purpose of the Sunshine Law, as affirmed by the attorney general, is the embodiment of Missouri's commitment to openness in government. We wish to continue to uphold that. This law, if it goes through as written, is just overly broad and will lead to further litigation."

Withholding audio or video recordings of the interior and exterior of corrections centers could be perceived as intending to obscure conditions of the center, she maintained.

She ticked off the ACLU's concerns with each segment of the proposed law. If people aren't allowed to view staffing assignments, they wouldn't be able to use Sunshine request to find where staff were within the facilities when incidents occur that may have involved a loved one. If people can't review the training curriculum, they won't be able to determine if principles fall in line with constitutional values.

"With the Sunshine Law, you shouldn't have to be a lawyer and go through litigation in order to get information from the government," Baker said. "That's why we created the Sunshine Law — so individuals could, families could, seek this information."

If the law is intended to modify a matter of settled law or an issue that's under litigation, there's no reason to add additional language and confusion to the statutes, Baker said.