Monday, April 16, 2012

Are "private prisons" subject to OPRA?

On Friday, April 20, 2012, at 9 a.m., Essex County Superior Court Judge Rachel N. Davidson will conduct an Order to Show Cause hearing in the case of John Paff v. Community Educational Centers, Inc., Docket No. ESX-L-1658-12.  This case presents an issue of first impression in New Jersey--whether taxpayers lose their right to access government records when the government "contracts out" a traditional governmental function--in this case correctional services--to a private entity.

In New Jersey, 11.4% of non-federal prisoners are housed in private facilities.  Yet, as currently applied, the Open Public Records Act (OPRA), while allowing citizens access to certain categories of records held by government-run prisons, denies access to those very same categories when held by private prisons.  It seems to me that the public's rights under OPRA shouldn't turn on the government's decision to privatize its functions rather than executing them through government employees. 

The hearing, which is open to the press and public, will be held in Courtroom 302 at the Historic Courthouse at 470 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd in Newark.  Plaintiff's lawyer is Richard Gutman of Montclair (973-744-6038) and the private prison's lawyers are Debra Shannon and Nichoele Johnson of West Caldwell (973-226-2900).  The briefs filed by both parties are on-line here.  Anyone who wishes to attend the hearing is cautioned to telephone the court at 973-693-6716 on Thursday to ensure that it hasn't been postponed.

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