An editor for Prison Legal News has sued the sheriff’s department in Marshall County, Tenn. (pop. 30,883) because the sheriff refused to comply with a request for public records about practices at the local jail.
In addition to refusing to comply with the records request, the sheriff, Norman Dalton, ordered a background check on the editor, paid a visit to his home and contacted the Department of Homeland Security.
Dalton admitted as much in court testimony this week, reports area NBC affiliate WSMV.
The editor, Alex Friedmann, sought the public records for an article about allegations of misconduct and abuse in the local prison system.
“It included policies regarding medical care for inmates, the contract with the jail to provide phone services for inmates, the grievance procedure process for inmates who complain,” Friedmann told WSMV.
Friedmann claims that Dalton and his department snubbed the records request – and spied on him, and contacted a federal agency charged with preventing terrorism – to cover up misconduct.
“The Marshall County Sheriff’s office apparently doesn’t feel it has to comply with the law,” the inmate advocate told the NBC affiliate.
“I think that’s very alarming and very disturbing that a law enforcement officer can do a background check, and in this case actually drove in to check my residence in person just because I filed a public records request with his agency,” he added.
Friedmann also noted that the sheriff’s department repeatedly insisted that he must visit the sheriff’s office in person to obtain records — a condition, he says, which is not required by Tennessee’s Office of Open Records.
William Haywood, an attorney representing the rural sheriff, said Dalton had his reasons for spying on Friedmann and contacting federal agents.
“Like the sheriff said on the witness stand, if he is not personally familiar with the person requesting or knows that they are a resident, then he has a right – he has an obligation under the statute – to make sure they are a resident of the state of Tennessee,” Haywood told the station.
Haywood did not identify any statute suggesting that Sheriff Dalton should call Homeland Security because someone had requested prison records.
WSMV also interviewed a local bail bondsman, Mike Farrar, who alleged that the Marshall County jail regularly mistreats inmates.
“They feed them here just twice a day instead of three meals. They eat at 6 o’clock in the morning and 6 o’clock in the evening only. But they sell commissary here that the sheriff’s department gets commission off of,” Farrar said.
After the court hearing, Sheriff Dalton graciously indicated that he now believes that Friedmann has a right to obtain the records he has tried so hard not to release. The sheriff also said he hopes the judge in the case rules against him and forces the release of the records.
A written ruling is expected soon.
Prison Legal News, founded in 1990, reports on civil litigation by inmates around the country and a wealth of other issues including prison conditions, prison rape, prison slave labor and prisoner medical treatment.
Friedmann began working for the nonprofit watchdog group after he completed a 10-year prison sentence of his own for armed robbery, attempted aggravated robbery and attempted murder, according to Mother Jones.