Alabama prison ruling backs public right to know


Montgomery Advertiser

September 22, 2009

The Alabama Supreme Court struck a blow for the public’s right to know how its business is being conducted when it ordered state corrections officials last week to make public their internal reports on inmate assaults at a state prison, as well as its findings in the death of an inmate.

Farron Barksdale, who was convicted of killing two Athens police officers, was found comatose in his cell at Kilby Correctional Facility just a few days after arriving there in 2007, and later died. His mother’s attorneys have been seeking documents from the internal probe of his death.

The court ruled 5-0 that Alabama’s Open Records Act “represents a long history of openness” and should be construed in favor of the public.

But the Supreme Court ruling, like an earlier lower court ruling, said the prison commissioner could black out sensitive information if it might subject a person to harm or jeopardize a pending investigation.

That strikes a fair balance between the public’s right to know and the ability of public officials to do their jobs.

Frankly, it is difficult to understand just why state corrections officials — with the backing of Alabama Attorney General Troy King — fought so hard to prevent the release of these additional documents, especially after Montgomery County Circuit Judge Eugene Reese included language in his earlier ruling allowing the Corrections department to black out certain sensitive information.

Prison Commissioner Richard Allen argued his case for continued secrecy in an Alabama Voices guest column in the Montgomery Advertiser in December. (See below to access the guest column.) But we did not find his arguments particularly persuasive, and apparently neither does the state Supreme Court.

Allen argued that the Corrections Department had provided extensive records to the Barksdale family, which has filed a federal civil lawsuit over the incident.

But the Barksdale case aside, it is important that the taxpaying citizens of Alabama have as much access as possible to the records showing how their business is conducted. Unless there is a specific reason otherwise, such as ongoing criminal investigations, records should be open to the public. Otherwise, the citizenry cannot reasonably judge how well public officials are performing their jobs.

We applaud the Supreme Court ruling, and urge public officials at all levels of government in Alabama to keep it in mind when they are asked for access to public records. Public officials should look for ways to allow access, instead of looking for ways to deny it. And they always should be reluctant to expend public funds to defend secrecy in court.

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