Southern Center for Human Rights on Thursday sued the Georgia Department of Corrections, accusing the agency of violating the state’s public records law by demanding hundreds of thousands of dollars for documents concerning the deaths of inmates and problems with the locks in cells at a Northwest Georgia prison.
“We just decided enough was enough” said Southern Center attorney Sara Geraghty. “The department has repeatedly failed to timely produce public records.”
The DOC declined to comment because a lawsuit has been brought.
The human rights group filed suit in Fulton Superior Court after DOC wrote the non-profit group would have to pay in advance $80,000 for records concerning the deaths of two inmates plus $90,000 for records about broken locks on cell doors at Hays State Prison and another $80,000 for reports on security audits.
The Southern Center, which has filed several lawsuits about jail and prison conditions, said in its suit that the agency estimated the total cost of the search would be around $250,000.
“Putting a quarter million dollar price tag on public records undermines public confidence in the GDC at a time when confidence has already been shaken by recent homicides and serious security lapses at Hays State Prison,” Geraghty said.
Before bringing the suit, the Southern Center had filed separate requests for records — the first on Feb. 11 and a second one on March 11, reminding the agency that it still had not received all the information it had asked for a month earlier.
The Southern Center is trying to learn more about increasing violence at Hays State Prison in Trion, where there are allegations of security lapses and reports that Hays administrators would alert inmates of upcoming searches, or shakedowns, so the prison would shine in departmental security audits.
SCHR asked for incident reports and other records concerning deaths of four inmates at the hands of other prisoners at Hays since December, but the organization is focused specifically on the death of Pippa Hall-Jackson, who had asked to be moved because he feared for his life. Hall-Jackson was stabbed to death moments after he stepped off the bus that had just transported him from Hays to the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison near Jackson. Only one person has been charged in any of the four inmate deaths.
The Southern Center wanted the names of prison employees involved with Hall-Jackson’s transfer on Feb. 5, security audits of Hays and one other prison and the DOC’s polices for searching transferring inmates.
State law requires government agencies to produce records within three days of being requested. And the agency can bill for the time an employee spends pulling records and for copies but it has to be reasonable.
Corrections said every employee with the agency would have to look through every file kept by the department to provide the records the Southern Center wants.
“The … outrageous claim that it would take over 31,000 business hours to fulfill these requests – or the equivalent of 15 years of work for a person working eight hours per day, 50 weeks per year – is patently unreasonable and in violation of Georgia’s open government laws,” the Southern Center wrote.