Open Records Office requires appeals on full sheets of paper

BY KARI ANDREN  kandren@tribweb.com

Put down the Post-Its. Set aside the paper scraps. The state Office of Open Records only wants full sheets of paper.

The office dismissed an appeal for records this week that had been filed by state prison inmate David Dixon on a scrap that amounted to about 1/3 of a sheet of paper, said Erik Arneson, executive director of the office.

The Office of Open Records is the quasi-judicial state agency that enforces Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law. When public agencies deny information, say they don’t possess relevant documents, or don’t respond to requests, citizens can appeal to the office for free.

Seeking public records using a full sheet of paper might seem obvious, but it turns out, that’s a stipulation the OOR had to put in writing. Appeals must be filed on 8.5×11 inch or 8.5×14 inch paper.

“We put that policy into place last year because we were receiving a lot of inmate appeals on paper fragments and, given the volume of cases we deal with, it really slows things down when the paperwork can’t be scanned into the system using our copier/scanner,” Arneson said.

The OOR dispensed with a record 2,926 appeals in 2015, with 61 percent coming from inmates, according to the agency’s annual report.

Arneson said the OOR once received an appeal filed on the back of a soup can label.

State prison inmates are provided with a writing instrument, and indigent inmates are given stationery and writing instruments upon request, said Corrections spokeswoman Susan McNaughton. Otherwise, inmates can buy pens, paper, folders and other office supplies from the prison commissary, she said.

A commissary price list shows 200 sheets of notebook paper costs $2.11 while 200 sheets of ink jet computer paper totals $5.87. Both are 8.5×11 inches, which would be accepted by the OOR.

Dixon can file a new appeal as long as 15 days have not elapsed since his request to the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole was denied, according to the OOR Final Determination.

This is just the latest example of inmate requests and appeals shaping the state’s Right to Know Law, enacted in 2008.

The prevalence of inmate requests – which have sought everything from mundane records on prison policies to oddities like education records of singer Taylor Swift – spurred proposed changes to what inmates can seek from public agencies.

Senate Bill 411, approved by the Senate last fall and now pending in a House committee, would limit inmate requests to about a dozen categories related to inmates’ education, discipline and work; court procedures and sentencing; and information about the prison in which they’re housed.

This story was first posted Thursday, August 11, 2016 at 2:15 p.m.

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