Five frustrations of dealing with the Bureau of Prisons

More like BOO: A Sunshine Week five-list look at one of our favorite least favorite agencies

Written by Beryl Lipton
Edited by JPat Brown

The records community was practically built on a communal necessity to avoid gaslighting-by-government. And if Sunshine Week is the annual choral concert, then Bureau of Prisons basically asks to have its discord sung.

It’s not like the BOP is the worst federal FOIA agency. There are plenty of contenders for the prize and BOP’s annual FOIA report numbers aren’t really stand-outs. But peer-group mediocrity shouldn’t be the best metric we have for determining the usefulness and success of our FOIA offices.

In a year when criminal justice reform as a hot talking point threatens to be engulfed in electoral hysteria, each stalled FOIA request is a new frustration. Here’s five of the biggest headaches.

5. The redirection delay

I’m not the perfect requester, and prolific though they may be, most people aren’t. But whether for straight organizational reasons or in order to stall, the BOP doesn’t do much to help. This request for reviews of the Federal Prison Industries’ pilot programs, for one, was initially sent to that office itself, instead of the BOP’s main FOIA location.

Though FPI was quick to point out the mistake, the resubmission to BOP was stalled when I failed to clarify that, yes, by submitting a FOIA request to the proper office, I was in fact submitting a FOIA request to that office. It’s like they had no idea what that was about.

Right.

4. Oh, you meant those records

When MuckRock user Chris Caesar requested a list of all employers using labor from UNICOR, the BOP withheld the entire list.

A less direct but related request for a list of prisons involved in FPI programs, however, at least garnered the facilities employing labor, the number of inmates involved, and the type of industry hiring them.

Such an approach adds a few steps, but can help get at information another way, which the BOP isn’t going to go out of its way to point out for you.

3. Redacted up the wazoo

When you open a collection 200 completely-redacted documents, it’s hard not to see them as so many middle fingers stuffed in a the world’s most passive aggressive manila envelope; the experience is both horrific and stultifyingly boring in its overlord disregard for citizen inquiry.

In yesterday’s best of redactions piece, JPat highlighted the hilarity of receiving a package covered in “screw you” yellow. That’s fortunate - at least there’s humor in the response if not anything at all useful.

That particular request was actually the aggregation of two related to global public relations firm Burson-Marstellar: one for a list of contracts and another for contents related to a particular one. All were withheld under exemptions b(4), trade secrets, and b(5), interagency communications,.

Should a list of BOP contracts with any organization, public relations firm or not, be withheld? Or one of those contracts wholecloth? Certainly not, but the BOP seems to disagree, and that’s not really a laughing matter.

2. Who even has some of these records?

When a government head wants to join the private sector, that person needs to request an ethical review of the circumstances. If a government official is extra special high up, then an extra special certification is supposed to be provided by the Director.

Those circumstances are interesting if one is, say, investigating an industry in which former BOP Directors go on to make beaucoup bucks working for private enterprise. According to the Federal Register, this is a pretty codified, but it’s harder to tell who is holding onto the standard.

The BOP pointed me to the Federal Register …

The Federal Register pointed me to the online resources …

Where there weren’t any records to be found …

Where they now live has yet to be cleared up, but it points to a gap in our records management, the “I thought you had it” effect. And for an agency that handles the transport and containment of human lives, the fact that people can’t usefully locate the very checks built to keep the system honest is unnerving.

1. Fees, fees, fees

Every requester will gripe about fees, but the BOP, while generous with their use of the taxpayer-provided colored ink, can be less so in other situations. An aggregated request of half a dozen contracts and related materials for private prisons, for example, has a going rate of almost $400.

It’s a pittance compared to some other estimates but can be a paralyzing barrier to entry if funds are unavailable. Perhaps a flare of prison population chatter isn’t enough to encourage a preemptive release that will be publicly available, but then it begs the question of what the Bureau of Prisons does consider information in the public interest.


Image via BOP.gov