The Georgia Department of Corrections sent a $250,000 tab to an advocacy group for public records about malfunctioning locks and prisoners recently killed at Hays State Prison.
The Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights, which has a history of battling the Georgia prison system on behalf of prisoners, says corrections officials are breaking Georgia's Open Records law by making records nearly impossible to obtain.
The group declined to pay such a high fee.
But Sarah Geraghty, an advocacy attorney, challenged the Department of Corrections in a letter and questioned its motives for setting such a price for records.
"They further undermine public confidence in the [prison system] at a time when such confidence has already been shaken by the numerous recent homicides and allegations of official corruption at Hays State Prison," Geraghty said.
Corrections officials didn't respond to requests for comment for this story.
The nonprofit organization's attorneys said they have requested detailed records of prisoner deaths, malfunctioning locks and security issues at the maximum-security prison in Trion, Ga. State officials, they said, have sent only partial records.
Now corrections officials say it will take every employee looking through every file -- a total of 10,000 business hours, the equivalent of almost five years of work -- to fill just one of the records requests.
This records request, sent March 11, was for documents about two inmates killed at Hays. The total bill would be $80,000. For records regarding broken locks at Hays State Prison, the department tried to charge $90,666.
State agencies bear the responsibility to provide public records affordably, said Hollie Manheimer, director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation. If the state charges an exorbitant fee, like in this case, the requester should ask the state agency to specify expenses such as copying costs, staff time and other line items to make sure officials are following the strict requirements of the law, she said.
The advocacy center has sued the Department of Corrections multiple times on behalf of prisoners in the system. Twice, the Southern Center for Human Rights was paid to settle lawsuits against guards at Hays State Prison. In both cases, the officers were accused of using excessive force.
In the latest federal lawsuit, settled for $93,000 in 2012, four prisoners accused a dozen Hays officers of beating, kicking and knocking them out while the inmates were handcuffed.
Geraghty said the advocacy group hopes to resolve the records matter without litigation, but attorneys will take the Department of Corrections to court if necessary.
"The GDC has a bad habit of dragging its feet in response to Open Records Act requests," she said.
Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6659.
Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...