Monday, May 18, 2009

Secretary Beard, what's the secret?

The Department of Corrections is the second-biggest line item in the state budget, but for some reason, the DOC thinks it's the CIA.

Last week, the ACLU of PA filed suit against the DOC under the Right to Know law. Prison Legal News had submitted a RTK request for successful litigation against DOC, including tax dollars spent to settle lawsuits. The DOC responded by claiming that the request would require 35,000 pages to be copied and more than $8000 in copying costs. Our press release on what went down is here.

I also learned last week that the DOC had denied a RTK request by the American Friends Service Committee. AFSC wanted a copy of the DOC's policy on the use of the restraint chair, which is used- and sometimes abused- in prisons to subdue inmates.

And today the DOC huddled (and cuddled?) behind closed doors with the state House Judiciary Committee. For several weeks, this event had been posted as a public hearing. Last week it was downgraded to an informational meeting, and the word got around that the meeting would be closed. It was a surreal sight seeing House security guarding the door and checking ID badges of those heading into the meeting.

All of this begs the question: What's the big secret at the Department of Corrections? Apparently, the department did not get the memo about the new era of open government. County prison boards must face the public on a monthly basis. Why can't the DOC occasionally face the music from the public? And who is holding them accountable?

Let's be clear: Allegations of abuse and poor conditions in the state prisons may have merit or they may be overblown. But we'll never know if the DOC continues to operate in secret.

Andy in Harrisburg

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