SALT LAKE CITY -- A state panel upheld a new policy by the Utah Department of Corrections that limits the number of documents it provides free of charge to inmates.
However, prisons must find a way for inmates to review records they can't afford to have copied, the panel said.
The ruling stemmed from an appeal filed by indigent inmate Michael Luesse, who made three record requests in May under the state's Government Records Access and Management Act. He learned more than a month later about the new policy that caps free copies at 100 pages per inmate annually.
Assistant Attorney General Matthew Anderson said the department instituted the policy in June to curb excessive and frivolous records requests filed by Luesse and about 15 other inmates, most of whom sought fee waivers, straining staff and financial resources.
On average, the Department of Corrections receives 100 records requests a week from inmates, and some prisoners file requests frequently.
Anderson said Luesse has made 98 records requests to date in 2012, including a request for a manual that describes health care provisions at community correctional facilities and an overview of the department's organization structure.
Under the new policy, an inmate can receive 100 pages of documents at no charge, but subsequent records requests will be automatically denied. An inmate must pursue an administrative review if he or she wants them for free. The charge may be waived for legitimate requests.
The prison charges 25 cents a page.
Anderson acknowledged the policy's effect would be to make indigent inmates more selective in their requests and that security issues might make it difficult to let them inspect records.
But he said Luesse's appeal was denied because the records he requested are available through other means, such as meeting with a case worker, or were trivial requests for information that don't affect his legal rights.
However, committee member Patricia Smith-Mansfield said the state's records law doesn't care if there is a need for a document. "I don't think copies have to be given, but access has to be given, and in this instance, access is being denied," she said.
John Mejia, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, told The Associated Press Friday that he wasn't familiar with the new policy. But he said it raises concerns about inmates' general access to information, particularly if it could be useful to their defense.
"It feels like there should be some way, at the very least on a case-by-case basis, to ensure that they have access to something that is important to their defense," he said. "There are a lot of important aspects of their lives that they can find more information about only through public records requests."
Luesse, who participated in the hearing by phone, argued that having to pay for copies of public documents is a substantial burden for indigent inmates such as him and creates a disparity between inmates who have money, jobs and family support and those who do not.
"To me, this is just an attempt by the department to prevent inmates from finding out things and how the department is supposed to operate," Luesse said.