In another of a string of successful challenges under state law, the Vermont Superior Court announced the private prison company Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) is subject to the state’s Access to Public Records Act. Prison Legal News v. Corrections Corporation of America, No. 332-5-13 Wncv, slip op. (Vt. Sup. Ct. Jan. 21, 2015).
This case arose from an attempt by Prison Legal News, an indefatigable news outlet, to obtain records about sexual assault claims brought by two inmates against prison officials. Specifically, PLN sought the settlement agreements that ended the sexual assault litigation. Id. at 1. CCA, the nation’s largest private prison operator, houses prisoners on behalf of Vermont’s Department of Corrections.
Though I’m definitely no expert on Vermont’s Access to Public Records Act, it seems to follow the general pattern of state open records laws and the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) insofar as it applies only to documents held by government units, with some exceptions obviously. Roughly a year ago, the Vermont Superior Court had concluded that CCA is the functional equivalent of a public agency under the state’s open records law. Id. In this decision, the court added that the settlement agreements themselves are not wholly exempt from disclosure. To ensure that the inmates’ “intimate personal details” are not disclosed, the court agreed to review the settlement agreements itself before turning them over to PLN. But turn them over it will do. Id. at 2.
In successfully suing CCA, PLN has managed to pierce, if ever so slightly, the veil of obscurity that generally pervades private prison operations. This is particularly important in the context of immigration detention because private prisons hold somewhere between half and two-thirds of civil immigration detainees. Furthermore, this is only the latest successful lawsuit that PLN has brought against CCA under state open records laws (for a similar victory under Texas law, see my earlier article here) so it would seem that the possibility remains for more to come.
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