State pays civil rights group for trying to overcharge for records

The Georgia Department of Corrections has agreed to hand over 1,000 pages of documents the Southern Center for Human Rights filed a lawsuit to obtain, and to pay the civil rights group’s legal fees. The center had sued to force the department to provide records about inmate deaths and broken locks at a northwest Georgia prison.

DOC had first said the cost of producing records would be $250,000 paid in advance: $80,000 for records concerning the deaths of two inmates, $90,000 for records about broken locks on cell doors at Hays State Prison and $80,000 for reports on security audits. Corrections said the cost was so high because it would take over 31,000 business hours to fulfill the requests, the equivalent of 15 years of work for a person working eight hours per day, 50 weeks per year — for every employee to search their records and emails for the information SCHR wanted.

Sara Geraghty, an attorney with the Southern Center, said the lawsuit was dismissed. The cost of the 1,000 pages was deducted from the SCHR’s legal expenses, which meant the state sent it a check for $9,000.

“We applaud the fact that the department and the attorney general decided to resolve this so quickly,” Geraghty said.

She declined to comment in detail about the change in DOC’s estimate of costs. “It speaks for itself,” she said.

DOC did not respond immediately to a request for comment Thursday morning.

A lawsuit was filed April 4 after the department failed to respond to requests for documents made in January, February and March.

The Southern Center is trying to learn more about increasing violence at Hays State Prison in Trion, where there are allegations of security lapses and reports that Hays administrators would alert inmates of upcoming searches so the prison would shine in departmental security audits.

SCHR asked for records concerning deaths of four inmates at the hands of other prisoners at Hays since December, but it is focused on the death of Pippa Hall-Jackson, who had asked to be moved because he feared for his life. Hall-Jackson was stabbed to death moments after he stepped off of the bus that brought him from Hays to the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison near Jackson.

The Southern Center wanted the names of prison employees involved with Hall-Jackson’s transfer Feb. 5, security audits of Hays and one other prison, and the DOC’s polices for searching inmates who are being transferred.

State law requires government agencies to produce records within three days of a request. An agency can bill someone seeking documents for the time an employee spends pulling records and for copies, but the charge has to be reasonable.