Requester's Voice: How Keri Blakinger uses public records to dig into prisons

Requester’s Voice: How Keri Blakinger uses public records to dig into prisons

‘Okay, how do I start this beat here?’ Open records, of course.

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Edited by JPat Brown

Prison administrators are not known for their transparency and developing strong sources in and outside the system rarely comes easy. But since 2016 the Houston Chronicle’s Keri Blakinger has used Texas’ (relatively) strong public records laws to get scoop after scoop on her beat, even though most of the institutions she covers are over an hour away.

That work was recently recognized by with a first-palace award from Texas Associated Press Managing Editors for specialty reporting.

But public records were not always a natural fit, particularly when she was reporting from New York for the New York Daily News.

“The public records that I was getting tended to be regarding the New York prison system. And they take so long to fulfill records requests that it’s almost impossible to even make it a part of your job,” she said. “If they’re going to take six months for everything, you have to learn to work without public records.”

But as she moved across the country and away from breaking national news to criminal justice, things changed.

“I came here to Texas, which has really great records laws. They still find ridiculous ways to withhold and subvert them, but the laws are pretty good in theory,” she said. ”If the agency wants to deny you, you don’t have to appeal, they have to immediately go to the AG and say, ‘Hey, we don’t wanna release this, here’s why.’ So it’s interesting that it starts with an appeal here, and they have to do the appeal.”

That system doesn’t always work. While the Attorney General has sided with her on four or five occasions, the office has a history of deferring to agencies — but the unique law helps shift some of the burden on the agency.

Now, Bakinger said she files about 250 or 300 requests per year, a crucial ingredient in her reporting process.

Filling a new beat by filing requests

Moving to Texas also gave Blakinger another motivation to up her records work: She was charged with covering the prison system despite some challenging logistics.

“When I got assigned to cover prisons, I was like, ‘Okay, how do I start this beat here?’,” she recalled. “I hadn’t been covering prisons, I didn’t have any sources at that point because I hadn’t been covering it, and the hub of the prison system’s about an hour and a half away, so I was trying to build up a beat some place where my stories do not exist.”

So she started putting together a list of regular requests she would file:

  • Agency inspector general reports.
  • Agency staffing lists, including name, hire date, race, gender, rank, where stationed and salary.
  • Case load numbers.
  • Copies of any requests other people have filed with the agency.
  • Lists of employees who had been arrested.
  • List of employees terminated over the past year and reason for dismissal.
  • Monthly Emergency Action Center reports, which tabulates inmate assaults, staff assaults, suicide attempts, escape attempts, and more.
  • Resumes of employees hired in the recent years. (“It’s really interesting if you’re trying to figure out who went to school with who or if somebody gets in trouble, now you have all this background.”)
  • Solitary confinement numbers, including current and historical numbers over a five-year span.
  • Staffing vacancy data (how many open or unfilled positions are there)

Filing for the same information on an annual or even monthly basis has let her spot trends that otherwise would have gone unreported. And it was not only bad news that she was able to spotlight.

Some news is good news

Once she started filing, it wasn’t long before stories started coming back. In fact, the first request she filed showed a surprisingly progressive policy change from the prison system that administrators had not bothered to announce.

“I asked for how many people were in solitary… [and how many were in solitary] on that same date every year for the past five years. That was, I think, the very first request I put in,” she said. “It turned out that they had stopped using solitary confinement for punitive purposes. They’ll still use it for administrative purposes, like, ‘We think you’re in a gang, so we’re gonna put you in solitary.’ And that’s still an issue, and a lot of advocates find that problematic, but they had suddenly decided to stop using it for punitive purposes, which is a very progressive thing to do, compared to other states.”

But while it was a major policy shift, one advocates across the country had been pushing for for years, the agency didn’t publicly announce the change. Blakinger only found out when she requested the records. The agency followed up to clarify why the punitive solitary numbers had gone to zero with the most recent count.

Building sources through - and for - public records

Filing requests also gave Blakinger leads on potential human sources down the road. Lists of staff members, for example, could be used to validate sources who approached her and claimed to be employees.

The list of who had left an agency was also helpful in finding former employees who might speak more freely. Even the list of other requests received by agencies could prove invaluable, helping connect with lawyers and non-profit organizations going after similar information.

But the public records-to-sources pipeline went both ways, with people formerly on staff helping direct request ideas and navigate bureaucratic hurdles.

“There was one guy at the [prisons staff] union who just hoarded documents and data,” Blakinger recalled. “If I can’t get a records request quickly enough from the state, I’ll call him and be like, ‘Do you happen to have this piece of data around?’ At least 50 percent of the time, he does or else he has something else relevant.”

Blakinger and that source, Lance Lowry, now host a podcast together.

Documents can lie

Like other longtime requesters, Blakinger also retains a healthy skepticism about what documents say. One time, for example, prison data seemed to show a dramatic drop in the number of cavities being treated by the prison’s dental system.

“It turned out they just changed how they counted it. They were counting it like incidents, like we filled cavities on this guy, this day, that’s one,” she said. “Where before, they’d been counting it as seven separate cavities.”

A reluctance of prison officials to speak makes this kind of fact-checking challenging, but getting that additional context is crucial. And while the cavity situation ended up being a non-story, her reporting last year on the lack of denture services ended up leading to a major policy shift.

Highlighting those kinds of discrepancies is where using both public records and traditional sourcing can really shine.

“Sometimes employees can be a good source in understanding the data or finding out what the other smart questions are to ask, to show if the data is concealing something,” said Blakinger. That was the case with some staffing data she looked at that showed an agency was fully staffed — but included employees in that count who were on long-term leave or were otherwise not actively working.

Looking for more public records inspiration? Blakinger’s request suggestions and many more are available on Muck.Rocks, our new website that provides quick and easy Freedom of Information inspiration. Have a request idea of your own? Share it to be included in our database.

Image via Wikimedia Commons