The Miami Herald has filed a lawsuit against the Florida Department of Corrections, alleging that the agency has violated the state’s open record laws by withholding information about suspicious deaths and possible sexual and physical assaults of inmates at the hands of corrections officers in the state prison system.
For more than a year, the Herald has been examining cases of physical, mental and sexual abuse of inmates, as well as a series of inmate deaths that have happened in state prisons that have had a history of violence. In some cases, the prison system failed to contact outside law enforcement agencies, allowing its own staff to conduct the investigations. In some cases, both inmates and DOC investigators have alleged the agency systemically covers up corruption and wrongdoing.
The Herald has requested copies of the agency’s investigations into some of those cases, only to find that reports were so heavily redacted that it is impossible to know what led to the inmate’s death. In addition, other reports involving what appears to be sexual harassment and abuse are also redacted so heavily that the nature of what happened is obscured.
The agency contends that the details they have blacked out pertain to protected medical information about the inmate, or would reveal information that could endanger officers or the security of the institution. DOC officials, however, have refused to cite the specific exemption they believe gives them the right to withhold the information.
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The Herald is also seeking video footage from the prisons depicting, among other things, corrections officers using force against inmates who subsequently died. The Herald considers the footage a public record, as it was made in connection with agency business, and was part of a criminal investigation, the lawsuit says.
DOC Secretary Julie Jones, in a statement, said that while the agency is committed to “accountability and transparency’’ in fulfilling public records requests, the agency also must guard protected information.
“It is the responsibility of the department to safeguard information related to the health and safety of our inmates, and the security of our institutions, as mandated by law, throughout the public records process,” Jones said.
The agency does not release a deceased inmate’s medical records, or details of what happened, to his or her family, without a court order.
The lawsuit, filed Friday, names the Department of Corrections and Jones as defendants and requests that a judge order the agency to release the information.
“For months, we've sought information from the Department of Corrections that we believe should be public,’’ said Miami Herald Executive Editor Aminda Marqués Gonzalez. “Without specifically citing exemptions, the department has either denied our requests or provided documents so heavily redacted they are incomprehensible. It's time to ask a court to bring some clarity to this process.”