During its efforts to improve the way inmates can complain about abuse, neglect, or poor conditions in the city's workhouse, the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri hit a brick wall.
When the inquiry started, they were cooperating with then-Corrections Commissioner Gene Stubblefield. Then Stubblefield was fired in December after a series of jail breaks and the collaboration fell apart.
"Our request for public records was -- it wasn't refused, it was ignored," says Tony Rothert, the ACLU-EM legal director.
The workhouses' troubles have been well-documented after a series of jailbreaks, mismanagement, and understaffing, but Rothert says the ACLU also hears complaints about things like, oh, guards setting up fights.
The ACLU's original request for "any and all records relating to the inmate grievance process" was sent on September 27, 2011, just 11 days after Stubblefield was suspended. A month later, Rothert wrote the corrections department again, saying they'd heard nothing back. Charles Bryson, then the director of public safety, replied that the person they'd been sending letters to was no longer an employee, but that an answer to the Sunshine Request would be sent in a matter of days. A month later, nothing.
Finally the ACLU did what the ACLU does -- filed a lawsuit against the city, the Department of Public Safety, and the Department of Corrections, saying its "knowing" or "purposeful" failure to turn over documents "causes irreparably injury to Plaintiffs and public by depriving them of public information to which they are entitled."
"After we filed the lawsuit, however, the city promptly owned up to its errors and gave up the records they had," says Rothert. "They are to be commended for owning up to their failure to comply with the Sunshine Law."
A judge agreed in an order issued Wednesday in favor of the ACLU, ordering the city to fork over about $1,100 in attorneys fees.
Although Rothert concedes that the corrections department was likely in a fair amount of "chaos" during the last year, he says the fact that the city has to pay its lawyer bills says something about how the ACLU's requests got lost in the shuffle.
"You only get attorneys' fees and costs if it's knowing and purposeful," he says.
In the meantime, Rothert says some of the ACLU's recommendations for changes in the jail have already been implemented and they will continue to work on making grievance process more transparent.
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