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A cautionary tale about private prison shift

As Florida enters the uncharted territory of a huge expansion of private, for-profit prisons, this story serves as a cautionary tale.

A citizen walks into a prison and says, Hello, I'd like to look at the visitors' sign-in log, which is a public record under state law.

No, a prison official says.

Things rapidly go downhill from there. Police are called, the citizen is given a trespass warning notice and now the citizen has filed a lawsuit, claiming his constitutional rights were trampled upon.

He's Joel Chandler, 47, of Lakeland, a self-appointed vanguard of public records laws. He is very serious about what he does and has sold most of his worldly possessions to support himself.

"I can't let go of it. It's a civil rights issue," Chandler says.

Chandler has filed about three dozen lawsuits against school boards, medical examiners — and now, Corrections Corporation of America, which runs the 985-bed Moore Haven Correctional Facility in Glades County, near Lake Okeechobee, under a contract with the state.

Florida has seven privately run prisons. By next year, there will be dozens more, after prisons in an 18-county section of South Florida are turned over to private operators.

When Chandler went to Moore Haven on June 3, he brought a videocamera to record CCA's reaction to his public records request.

That apparently did not endear him to the folks at the front desk.

With his camera rolling, Chandler was asked to identify himself and declined, saying a citizen is not required to show an ID to see public records.

CCA says that for obvious security reasons, anyone who enters their facilities is required to produce an ID. Videotaping is prohibited without the warden's approval (Chandler did show police his ID).

Florida law says: "Any person shall have the right of access to public records for the purpose of making photographs of the record while such record is in the possession, custody, and control of the custodian of public records."

Rather than let Chandler see the sign-in log, the prison asked Chandler to submit his request in writing. Then CCA called the cops. Glades County sheriff's deputies soon arrived on the scene.

Chandler had no interest in what was on the visitors' log. He was testing CCA's compliance with the law. "What I care about is access to the documents," Chandler said.

The prison's lawyers mailed Chandler a copy of the June 3 visitors' log soon enough. But Chandler didn't want a copy, he wanted to view the original, which he still hasn't seen.

"My rights have been violated since June 3," Chandler said. He wants a written apology from the prison and wants prison officials to take a course in dealing with public records requests.

Moore Haven's warden, Laura Bedard, referred questions to CCA corporate headquarters in Nashville. "This was not a typical public records request," CCA spokesman Steve Owen said. "They came in with a videocamera."

Owen said safety and security is the No. 1 priority for the CCA staff. "We're going to work in good faith through the judicial process to resolve this matter," he said.

Chandler went to the State Attorney's Office in LaBelle this week, hoping to jump-start a criminal investigation.

He told officials CCA detained him for an hour against his will. And he's still waiting to inspect that visitors' sign-in log.

A cautionary tale about private prison shift 08/31/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 31, 2011 9:34pm]
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