30 May Know More: Freedom of Information Act
The criminal justice system in Illinois can often feel like a jigsaw puzzle, full of interlocking laws, policies, and eccentricities that can be overwhelming even to experienced advocates. Over the next few months, Restore Justice will publish a series of “Know More” posts. Each post will provide a straightforward overview of a different Illinois criminal justice concept as it relates to our mission.
What is the Freedom of Information Act?
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a set of laws that seeks to make government more transparent by giving individuals and organizations the power to request and receive public documents from public institutions. It does so by creating a relatively straightforward process for individuals to request documents and places requirements on government to respond in a timely manner or face potential lawsuits.
Not all information is subject to FOIA. Personal addresses and phone numbers of civil servant and staff, for instance, falls outside the law’s scope (you can find a full list of exemptions here).
Despite these limits, FOIA laws remain a potent tool for individuals seeking more information about government and their elected officials.
Why does it matter?
FOIA gives citizens a way to hold their government accountable. It has been used—often by reporters, but also civic organizations —to expose everything from corruption and cover-ups to human rights abuses by federal agencies. Closer to home, FOIA laws in Illinois have recently been used to force the Chicago Police to release the Laquan McDonald police shooting video. Without robust FOIA laws, it’s likely that many of these abuses would have gone unexposed and unchallenged.
But in Illinois, there are serious shortfalls in our FOIA legislation. Because of how our FOIA laws are written, many documents and records related to conduct by the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) remains off limits as a “security” measure. Similar clauses protect police departments and other elements of the Illinois justice system from scrutiny.
There are good reasons to keep some records off limits. But too often, the cover of “security” applies too broadly.
For instance, earlier this year we submitted a FOIA request to IDOC on their lockdown policy. Prison lockdowns can last weeks and lead to solitary-like confinement conditions and severe reduction in services for inmates. While lockdowns are used in response to fights, riots and similar incidents, sources indicated that prisons were using them more liberally, and for reasons not related to incidents. To find the truth, we requested IDOC disclose their policies for determining when to impose and lift lockdown status, as well as the number and length of lockdowns from the past two years.
Our request was denied in full, with “security” reasons cited. This ability to so quickly dismiss inquiries means alarming and unethical practices can often go undisclosed for too long. Today, IDOC is currently being suing in a class action suit by prisoners who faced extreme physical and sexual abuse at the hand of IDOC security officers. In a second suit, the Department has been charged with providing grossly inadequate medical care in prison, leading to the premature death of inmates.
Based on how our state laws are written, many of the relevant records about these practices—about IDOC officer conduct, medical incidents, and the like–would have been exempt from FOIA.
Want to learn more?
There’s a lot out there on FOIA. For a dive into the law’s technical nuances, law firm Loevy & Loevy has published an exceptionally detailed overview of Illinois FOIA laws. You can also find how the firm uses FOIA in its various cases on their blog.
If you want to look beyond Illinois, the Sunshine in Government Initiative is a great resource for learning how FOIA has helped keep federal government transparent and accountable. Their website is full of resources, included a fantastic archive of news stories that were made possible by FOIA.
And to see how another local nonprofit uses FOIA for an adjacent line of work, check out the Lucy Parsons Labs. They’ve used FOIA to investigate policy shootings and how Chicago police use a range of surveillance tools to track its residents, among other projects.
ACLU of San Diego. Government documents show Customs & Border Protection officials have abused migrant children. Retrieved from https://www.aclusandiego.org.
Cordis, Adriana S. & Warren, Patrick L. (2012, April) Sunshine as disinfectant: the effect of state Freedom of Information Act laws on public corruption. Journal of Public Economics. (115)
Ruiz, Rebecca & Ivory, Danielle. (2014, July 15). Documents show General Motors kept silent on fatal crashes. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com.
Thayer, Andy. (2016, March 8). Journalist sues to get police & state’s attorney records of Laquan McDonald shooting investigations [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://www.loevy.com.