Do privacy rights supersede the Open Records Act?

Do the privacy rights of an inmate confined in a county jail supersede the Oklahoma Open Records Act?

A recent lawsuit against a Title 60 public trust that operates an Oklahoma jail facility is asking a court to answer that question. The Petition is available here.

The issue arises from the custodial death of Kongchi Thao last November. His death has raised several questions about the operation of the jail facility, and whether it caused or contributed to Thao’s death.

Information obtained by Thao’s family appears to show Thao loudly yelling for help in the minutes before he sustained life-threatening injuries in an isolation cell that lacked any monitoring, either through direct supervision or by video. No jailer responded to those pleas, and Thao was later discovered near death.

To shed light on what happened in that cell, Thao’s family submitted requests under the Oklahoma Open Records Act for the jail register (a list of people in the jail) and video of Thao prior to being placed in the isolation cell.

The trust authority denied both requests citing the privacy rights of other inmates.

Notably, however, the Open Records Act does not include any exemption that recognizes a privacy interest in this context. In fact, a “jail register” is explicitly listed in the Act as a document that must be disclosed upon request. See 51 O.S. Sec. 24A.8(A)(8).

The same is true of documents capable of being redacted.

While the family offered to accept video of Thao with the faces of other inmates blurred or redacted, the trust authority has maintained its decision to withhold the records.

The lawsuit against the trust authority seeks declaratory and injunctive relief, along with reasonable costs and attorney fees.

If you or someone you know has questions about the Oklahoma Open Records Act, or in-custody deaths, contact the attorneys at Bryan & Terrill, 918-935-2777, or in Colorado, 970-736-7171.