By LUKE BRITT/Editor
A couple of month’s ago we watched several members of the Union Parish Police Jury reject their attorney’s strongly-worded admonition to drop their fight for control of Buffalo Landing Road. Despite considerable evidence that they were acting against the best interests of the parish and contrary to their decisions in several other similar cases, five jurors voted to ignore their attorney’s advice, with juror Johnny Buckley openly acknowledging that they had “voted not to listen to the attorney.”
So it was more than a little comical when, on an entirely different matter, Buckley said during the Police Jury’s June 6 meeting that the jury “has to follow what the attorney said.” He said it multiple times, in fact, and he wasn’t alone. Juror Ben Bridges, who also voted against following the attorney’s advice on Buffalo Landing Road, echoed Buckley’s sentiments regarding the importance of listening to one’s attorney.
The issue that inspired this miraculous change of heart was a public records request that the jury’s attorney said should be denied. The jury refused to release the requested information and when the citizen who made the request, Johnny Creed, showed up on June 6 to challenge that denial, Buckley and Bridges were quick to point out that they were simply following the attorney’s advice.
Is it possible they thought no one would notice this brazen flippity flop? Not a chance. Is it possible they don’t care? Yes.
About that request
The dubious machinations of a subset of jurors, aside. That denied public records request warrants a bit of attention.
Creed, now retired, spent his entire professional career in corrections and is the former director of operations for the Louisiana Department of Safety and Corrections, so he knows a thing or two about how corrections facilities are administered. It was Creed who, in February, brought to everyone’s attention the fact that the Union Parish Detention Center is woefully understaffed.
On May 22, Creed asked the Police Jury to identify inmates participating in the Detention Center’s work release program, which is a program that allows certain nonviolent offenders to work in various businesses around the parish. Specifically, Creed asked for the names and inmate numbers of offenders participating in the work release program and the same information for inmates who are eligible for work release but have not yet been approved to participate in the program.
Louisiana’s Revised Statute 15:574.12 establishes the rules governing confidentiality of inmate information and says that everything in an inmate’s “prison record” is confidential unless specifically defined as public information. Those exceptions are limited to an inmate’s name, age, offense, date of conviction, length of sentence and any records of misconduct while incarcerated.
The Police Jury asked its attorney for guidance on whether to release the requested information, and attorney Trevor Fry of Alexandria’s Gold Weems law firm recommended against it, citing a 2009 Attorney General opinion that held that information about specific inmates involved in work release programs is part of an inmate’s “prison record”, and therefore, is not public information.
We asked the Louisiana Press Association to review Creed’s request, and the LPA’s attorney said that while the prison record exception is “extremely broad,” the AG’s application of it to Louisiana work release program means Creed’s request could not be approved. In other words, as long as the AG opinion stands, revealing information about specific inmates participating in the work release program is against the law.
For the time being, that is. There is a flaw in the logic behind in the AG’s opinion that someone, perhaps Mr. Creed, might exploit: How can one claim that the identities of work release inmates must be protected when the very act of allowing an inmate to work outside the Detention Center makes their identities known? Plaintiffs have, many times throughout the years, successfully argued that restrictions on confidential information can be rendered impotent if the information being protected is already publicly known.
There’s another aspect of the state’s public records law that Mr. Creed ought to know. A citizen who is denied access to information can sue the public official, office or body that denied the request, and if the citizen wins, the government must cover the citizen’s legal expenses.