Lawmakers propose denying prisoners access to the state’s open-records law


By City Paper‘s Daniel Denvir – Since Pennsylvania overhauled its Right to Know Law in 2008, Roger Buehl has typed out numerous requests, demanding that a state agency turn over information about everything from private medical contractors and MP3 players to the official definition of  “inclement weather.” When his efforts are rebuffed, he has appealed to the state’s Office of Open Records for help and even filed a lawsuit.

But Buehl, a prisoner, serving a life term for a high-profile triple murder in Villanova in 1982, could find this important channel for information cut off. Four bills introduced by state lawmakers seek to limit or strip inmates of their rights under the law.

Rep. RoseMarie Swanger, a Republican from Lebanon County, has introduced the most severe, House Bill 115. It would allow state agencies to not release information requested by a prisoner. She was motivated by a county clerk in her district, who she says has been “bogged down” by requests from prisoners.  “It’s ridiculous,” she says.

None of the bills have moved out of committee, but the effort has drawn support from leaders of both parties.

“There are other mechanisms to get the information they are entitled to besides filing right-to-know [requests],” writes Department of Corrections (DOC) spokesperson Susan McNaughton. “Sometimes it is just as simple as making a request of staff. A majority of the requests from inmates are for information regarding their own sentencing, upcoming prison menus and their own medical information.”

But Buehl says that prisoners need the open records law more than most.

“As a prisoner, I have no access to the Internet and the usual sources of information,” Buehl writes, apologizing that his handwriting — though still quite clear — has been rendered sloppier than usual by a prison-mandated rubber pen. “Additionally, the PA DOC restricts prisoners’ access to general information, and it rarely … voluntarily discloses corrections-related information to prisoners. Many Pa. DOC officials operate on a belief that prisoners are not entitled to honesty or truth from them.”

Of the 1,925 right-to-know requests received by the Department of Corrections in 2012, 79 percent were filed by inmates.

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