HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Connecticut's Freedom of Information Commission was asked Friday to reconsider how poor a prison inmate must be to obtain public documents for free.
Derrick Taylor, a 43-year-old inmate serving an 80-year sentence for a 1992 murder outside a Hartford bar, is requesting several thousand pages of documents from the state Department of Correction related to operations of Northern Correctional Institution, where he is housed. The documents include commissary contracts and details about the prison's ventilation and television systems.
The department allowed him to review the documents, but it says he can't have copies unless he pays $200 for processing. They said Taylor doesn't qualify for a fee waiver, because he had more than $5 in his commissary account in the three months before and after his request.
In an appeal heard Friday, Taylor, who testified via telephone from the prison, called that definition of indigent ridiculous and discriminatory.
"My current financial status is this — I'm broke," he wrote in his appeal.
The state Freedom of Information Commission allows individual agencies to set their own standard for indigence when determining whether to waive fees for public documents. Members of the general public can get a fee waiver from the Correction Department if they meet federal poverty guidelines.
But Assistant Attorney General Steven Strom argued Taylor and other inmates are not like members of the general public. He made his point by peppering Taylor with questions about how much he has paid for things such as electricity, meals or the mattress in his cell.
Strom also noted that Taylor had spent more than $7,000 at the commissary since 2006, buying items such as coffee, ramen noodle soup and candy.
"So just like any other consumer, you made a choice as to how to spend your money," he said. "You chose to buy items from commissary and not pay for your FOI copies."
Strom also argued that if all inmates were allowed to get documents for free, it would overwhelm the system.
Todd Sokolowski, a guard who serves as the prison's FOI liaison, testified that he handled almost 500 requests for documents from inmates last year. The Freedom of Information Commission last year handled 179 complaints from inmates who felt their FOI requests were improperly denied.
Strom said the Correction Department at one time had a policy to make all inmates pay for documents, but that policy changed as the result of a previous FOI ruling.
In a 2010 case, the commission found that the department's $5 standard for indigency was "objective, fair and reasonable."
Friday's hearing ran over the time allotted for it and was to be continued at an undetermined date.