If there is a state agency in Mississippi that should be required to be more transparent, not less, it’s the Department of Corrections.
Yet, Pelicia Hall, the head of that agency, was asking a panel of lawmakers recently to relieve MDOC of some of the requirements of the state Public Records Act.
She claimed that reporters and others are pestering MDOC with more requests than it can handle within the law’s deadlines for turning over the requested records. She also questioned the motives of some of the requests, saying they appeared to be a “fishing expedition,” presumably for a story or an inmate lawsuit.
“There should be some limits on what you are transparent about,” Hall was quoted as saying to the Senate Corrections Committee.
The truth is the Public Records Act already provides limits — too many of them — over what government agencies in Mississipi have to disclose. They can keep under wraps most personnel records, criminal investigative reports, information related to economic development projects, just to name some of the most commonly shielded documents. A couple of years ago, lawmakers carved out a special exemption just for MDOC to withhold the identity of the suppliers that provide the state with the drugs used for executions.
Rather than too much disclosure, MDOC has suffered from too little.
It often communicates to the public only when compelled to. What information it does provide about inmates or about what transpires behind prison walls is scanty and sometimes misleading.
Last year, when 16 inmates died in one month while in state custody, Hall pretended there was nothing unusual about the death toll until a couple of those “pesky” record seekers called her out on it and showed that the death rate was about three times higher than average.
And does it even have to be mentioned that the lack of transparency in corrections allowed a predecessor of Hall’s, Chris Epps, to swindle an estimated $1.4 million in kickbacks and bribes in one of the worst corruption scandals in state history? Trusting Epps, as many lawmakers and several governors foolishly did, allowed him to hit up almost anyone who wanted to do business with MDOC or any of its offshoots until the feds came in and cleaned house.
Not only should lawmakers reject Hall’s request for relief from the state Public Records Act. They should tell her if she doesn’t like being held accountable by the public, she should consider other employment.