ACLU Challenges Virginia Law Excluding Prisoners From FOIA

Affiliate: ACLU of Virginia
December 6, 2007 12:00 am

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Prisoner Suffering From Hepatitis C Unable to Obtain
Treatment Protocol


RICHMOND, VA – The ACLU of Virginia was in court this morning seeking to overturn a Virginia statute that prevents prisoners from using the state Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to obtain public documents. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit heard oral arguments in the case.

“As captives of the state, prisoners have a legitimate interest in the policies and procedures that govern their incarceration,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. “Besides, prisoners have to pay a reasonable price for public documents, just like everyone else.”

The ACLU of Virginia and the Rutherford Institute represent Joseph M. Giarratano, an inmate at Red Onion State Prison who suffers from Hepatitis C. Giarratano was unable to obtain a copy of the Department of Corrections’ policy describing the protocol for treating his disease. The same documents are available to any non-incarcerated person who asks for them.

“Giarratano suffers from a potentially fatal disease that he contracted while in prison, but he can’t determine if the treatment he is receiving complies with prison policy,” said Willis. “If he can’t find out if he is getting the treatment he is entitled to, he has no basis for challenging inadequate treatment in court or anywhere else.”

Under a law passed by the Virginia General Assembly in 1997, no person incarcerated in a state, local or federal correctional facility may use FOIA to obtain government documents.

The case was filed in U.S. District Court in Big Stone Gap in January 2006. Giarratano’s lawyers argued that the state law violates the right to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment and right to access the courts guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendment. The District Court dismissed the case in October 2006, and the ACLU appealed in January 2007.

Attorneys for Giarratano are Stephen D. Rosenfield, cooperating attorney for the ACLU of Virginia; Rebecca K. Glenberg, Legal Director of the ACLU of Virginia; and R. Frazier Solsberry, participating attorney for The Rutherford Institute.

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