This is Sunshine Week, a week when we are supposed to celebrate the Freedom of Information Act, something that actually holds our public officials accountable. In all states, that is, except Michigan. Our state, affectionally referred to as Pure Michigan, ranks last among states for government transparency! That according to the Center for Public Integrity.
Here are three damning points you should be aware of, during Sunshine Week:
-We exempt the Governor’s Office from disclosure of public information. She’s a Democrat.-We exempt the state legislature as well. Both houses are Republican.-Prisoners in Michigan are not allowed to file FOIA requests.
In his Sunday newspaper column, MLive Vice President of Content John Hilner describes barriers his reporters encounter when they try to get information. I have personally heard a public official in my county boast about how tough the FOIA Coordinator makes it for those filing requests.
And our office is keenly aware of that problem because we file hundreds of FOIA requests on behalf of Michigan prisoners, often meeting resistance. The law states that citizens have the right to know, but in 1994 the Michigan Legislature OK’d an amendment to say that prisoners are excluded from FOIA. In other words, they are not citizens.Michigan is one of only a few states that will not allow inmates to file FOIA requests.
Our friend Dan Manville takes our side. And he’s well-qualified to do so. Manville is an associate clinical professor at the Michigan State University law school, where he directs the Civil Rights Clinic. He has plenty of first-hand experience with this issue, as a former inmate and jailhouse lawyer himself.
He gives this example of prisoners being hurt by that provision. When Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003, federal law requires prison officials to investigate allegations of sexual assault by guards or inmates. BUT, when inmates submit a complaint, after the investigation is complete, the prisoner is only given a one-page document that tells them whether or not there was sufficient evidence to support the complaint. If a prisoner wants to file a lawsuit, without FOIA they're usually unable to determine whether or not they have a strong enough case to go to court.
What it boils down to is this. Whether you’re inside or outside of prison bars, there’s a whole lot your state officials don’t want you to know.
And that leads to this Sunshine Week question: What are you going to do about it?