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Inmates’ access to records is eyed

Prisoners in Washington state have abused the Public Records Act, officials say.

SEATTLE — An entrepreneurial spirit struck Allan Parmelee last fall as he sat in a Washington state prison, where he’s serving 17 years for bombing the cars of two lawyers.

According to the state attorney general’s office, Parmelee wrote to his brother — who’s serving 11 years in Michigan for child pornography — saying they could make a killing collecting fines from government agencies around the country that take too long to respond to burdensome requests for public records.

“It’s like selling real estate, except easier and more predictable,” he wrote in the letter.

That abusive attitude toward public records is nothing new for Parmelee and a handful of other prisoners in Washington state who have used the Public Records Act to annoy, harass and simply get back at the people who put them and keep them behind bars, state officials say.

Lawmakers say the problem has worsened dramatically in the last few years, and they’re ready to stop it by allowing judges to restrict how much access inmates have to public records.

The state House and Senate are both expected to pass bills that would permit agencies or public employees who are the target of records requests filed by inmates to take those requests to a judge. The judge could strike the requests upon finding they are intended to harass or intimidate, or that the disclosure of the records would jeopardize security. The judge could also require that any future requests by the prisoner be approved by the court.

Some states have already taken steps to deal with prisoner requests. Ohio requires inmates to have their requests for records of a criminal investigation or prosecution approved by a judge, and Michigan and Virginia exclude inmates from their public records access laws.

Washington’s Department of Corrections and the state lawyers who handle its public records litigation say the legislation would dramatically cut the amount of time they spend on frivolous or intimidating requests. Last year, the department received more than 11,000 public records requests, and 8,000 of those came from offenders — a 64 percent jump from 2007.

The majority of those requests are legitimate, the department says — inmates seeking records about their cases, for example.

But the agency points to a few prisoners it considers abusive, and Parmelee tops the list.

The department staff has logged nearly 4,900 hours responding to Parmelee’s 812 public records requests, some seeking photos and personnel files of the agency’s staff.

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