Thursday, March 17, 2005

Happy Sunshine Week from the Texas Attorney General

Wanting to compare the number of prison deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan (108, total, out of ~65,000 prisoners) to Texas (death total unknown, ~155,000 prisoners), I contacted the Texas Attorney General, which must compile annual reports regarding deaths in custody submitted to the federal government. I got the contact information for the "state deaths in custody reporting coordinator," Renee Gray, off of this federal form from DoJ (pdf), and reached her office voice mail. I was called back, though, by someone from the public information office, who informed me that they couldn't give me that information unless I filed an open records request! But I only wanted the topline number that they report to the feds, I protested! No matter. "You're asking for public information," she said, and you can't have even that topline data without a written request.

Wow! Those are some scared bureaucrats when they're afraid to release even that level of information without creating a paper trail.
Ten years ago you'd have gotten that information with a phone call, easy -- now everybody's clammed up. I filed the request by email for five years of data -- more damn work for both of us than if they'd just answered the fool question!

So Happy Sunshine Week, everybody, from the state agency in charge of enforcing the Texas Public Information Act.

By the way, I found a dated answer to my question via Google, though there's not enough specificity on dates for the military numbers to allow apples-to-apples comparisons to overseas prisons. In 2002, all of Texas law enforcement experienced 316 custodial deaths, but only 98 were in the prisons. Another 118 died in municipal or county jails, and 100 more died in peace officer custody outside of the jailhouse.

UPDATE: After a snarky comment in my OR request to the effect that I was asking for more information because they made me file a written request, wasting both our time, I got a call back from Karen Rabon, public information coordinator for the AG's PR division. I doubt she'd seen the blog post, and she certainly didn't say so. She was polite, but at first insisted that her office had no way of knowing whether the federally designated
"state deaths in custody reporting coordinator" would have aggregate information in her possession regarding how many people die in Texas prisons. We got past that hump, but in the process I suppose I didn't hold back my opinion that, as the state agency charged with enforcing the Open Records Act, it's a shame the folks who work there feel like the most mundane request for information needs a paper trail to cover their behind. When I likened it to requesting information from State Health Services, Ms. Rabon got her dander up: "I don't appreciate that," she said, "that's why I'm calling you now, to resolve it." (Hmmmm, wonder what's her beef with the health department?)

Anyhow, bottom line, after going round a bit she offered to get Ms. Gray on the phone to give me the information I'd first requested, but since I'd already found the 2002 data, I decided to just let them process my longer request. Naturally, Grits readers will be first to know the results.


Catonya said...

The real kicker regarding disclosure of a custodial death report is that only the first page is subject to disclosure. A Texas Custodial Death Report can be seen here. Page 1 contains no details regarding the death, not even the name of the deceased. Under current law, subsequent pages containing the details of who, how, when, where, never have to be disclosed.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Oh my word, sweetie, I bet you would know. The Texas Legislature filed 5,200 bills and nobody thought to do THAT. Sunshine week, indeed. They've gutted the open records law. When I was in college the thing was really strong, but over the last decade the special interests, especially related to law enforcement, pretty much got to write their own exemptions.

For anyone who hasn't checked out Catonya's sad and lovely site, 2withspirit, let me encourage you to do so. She's spent a lot of time trying to piece together what happened when her husband Rick died in a high-speed chase, and apparently this report is one more piece of information that was denied her. Thanks for the info, C, that's useful to know, if unfortunate that it's closed. Supposedly I'm going to get aggregate statistics.