Bureau of Prisons breaks space-time continuum to deny FOIA

BOP closes request due to lack of interest - three days before they even acknowledged receiving it

Written by JPat Brown
Edited by Michael Morisy

Back in September 2011, MuckRock user Jason Smathers filed a request with the federal Bureau of Prisons regarding a riot within a maximum security prison in Colorado. Two weeks later, the BOP acknowledged the request …

And we’re off to the races! Except in this case, it’s less “race” and more “treadmill” - for the next five months, the only interaction on this request was the BOP’s automated reply to our automated follow-up.

Then, jumping forward another eight months to October 2012 - a year and change after acknowledgment - we get the first human response from the BOP:

Alright, a fee letter is in the mail! That sure sounds promising. Now all we have to do is wait.

And wait. And wait. Seven months later, and the letter was still theoretically “in the mail.”

Two years of follow-ups later, and it’s April 2015 - close to four years after the initial filing - we finally receive a response … indicating that the request had been closed due to lack of interest. And what’s more, it had been closed for close to four years.

So, according to the BOP, they had sent a letter, written three days before they received Smathers’ request, indicating that he needed to demonstrate written interest in the request that they hadn’t begun processing yet, or they would stop (or in this case, not start?) processing it. Since Smathers hadn’t demonstrated that he was still interesting in something that they weren’t aware he was interested in yet, they had no choice but to close the case before they opened it.

Sounds legit.

Smathers, however, did not agree -

And immediately appealed, on the grounds of “Seriously, What the Hell?”

Now, in the interest of fairness, and giving the BOP a completely unearned benefit of the doubt, let’s say that what we’re dealing with here isn’t time-travel or forgery, but a typo, and that the Godot-like fee letter from September 2012 and the “still interested? Nope? Okay!” letter are one and the same.

Even then, that just upgrades the BOP’s behavior from “egregious and impossible” to just run-of-the-mill egregious. For an agency to ignore 40+ request for status updates and then unilaterally close out a request through the most dubious form of an already dubious practice that was dubiously sent in the first place … that takes some Olympic-level not doing your job. Or, as Smathers puts it in his appeal:

Fortunately, this story has a happy ending - the DOJ’s Office of Information Apology immediately acknowledged the appeal …

which it then remanded back to a clearly mortified BOP for immediate processing …

Which was the last we’ve heard from them. And that was … oh, look at that, June 2015, exactly a year ago, nigh on five years after the initial request.

This is FOIA. There are no happy endings. How can there be if nothing ever ends?


Image via BOP.gov