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Inmates Denied Access to State Database Files

May 23, 2002

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Inmates Denied Access to State Database Files

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by Mark Hamblett, New York Law Journal

Prisoners challenging the double-celling of inmates in the state's maximum security prisons will not have access to the Department of Correctional Services' electronic databases, a Southern District judge has ruled.

Citing the enormous burden on New York State in a class action that has already generated "nearly three quarters of a million pages of records" in discovery, Judge Gerard E. Lynch said that the "security burdens on the State will be massively increased by production in this form . . . ."

Judge Lynch is the latest in a series of judges to preside over the seven-year old case of Jones v. Goord, 95 Civ. 8026. The suit charges that the housing of two prisoners in a cell designed for one due to prison overcrowding increases the transmission of disease and the incidence of violence, and therefore deprives "inmates of the minimal civilized measure of life's necessities . . . ."

Relief on a similar claim concerning the practice of double-celling in the state's minimum-security prisons was rejected following a trial on the merits in 1998 before Judge Sidney Stein.

And in his own opinion, Judge Lynch said the prisoners face a "difficult burden" in proving their case.

"The problem for a court is not to enforce its idea of an ideal prison budget, but to decide when economies in prison spending create conditions that cannot be tolerated in a humane society," Judge Lynch said.

"The plaintiffs' contention that New York's policy oversteps this line faces the further obstacle that double-celling is not a universal or even widespread condition in New York's prisons," the judge said. The practice involves less than 5 percent of the state's maximum-security cells, and inmates are "double-celled" for no longer than 60 days, he said.

Even though the prisoners had obtained a great deal of information about double-celling, they asked Judge Lynch for six different electronic databases that they claimed were "essential to the effective prosecution" of the case. The databases would enable the lawyers for the class to track the locations of prisoners, recover incident reports and disciplinary records and monitor prisoners medical problems and treatment.

Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson has handled the prisoners' claims pro bono in both the Bolton and Jones case since 1995.

Ira S. Sacks of Fried Frank said the problem with the Bolton case was that the plaintiffs were "able to demonstrate a risk of harm, but not actual harm," caused by the practice of double-celling. So during discovery in the Jones case, Sacks said, the aim was to move beyond anecdotal evidence of harm to prisoners and show how problems exist on a "facility-wide or system-wide basis."

"What we were looking for was a way to do statistical analysis by using the existing database rather than recreating our own," from the paperwork already turned over in discovery, he said. The difficulty with creating an electronic database from existing paperwork, he said, was that errors are often made in data entry.

Vulnerable to Hacking

But despite the plaintiffs' assurances on confidentiality, attorneys for New York State had several objections, including that the structure of the databases and the technical specifications that would have to be provided to plaintiffs' experts would leave the computer system vulnerable to hacking.

In a case where discovery has been so extensive that the New York Attorney General has hired three full-time clerks to work on it, Judge Lynch said the prisoner plaintiffs were unable to counter the state's objections.

The judge first determined that the information on the databases was indeed relevant discovery material.

But he said that the "databases appear to be general DOCS managerial tools, covering all inmates," in the state system, and "nothing in the record suggests that the databases are easily broken down in such a way that only the portion relating to the institutions involved in this lawsuit can be separately reproduced or disclosed."

Moreover, he said, the data sought "are not readily available to the statistical manipulations proposed by plaintiffs," and the process of getting meaningful access to the system "is not a matter of duplicating discs and handing over copies."

In addition to the expense and burden involved in the effort, he said, "the security risks of producing the databases are substantial . . . ."

The databases contain a host of sensitive material, and as the extended discovery period has already shown, extensive redaction of such material takes a great deal of time and effort, he said.

While it may be easier to guard against physical theft of paper documents entrusted to plaintiffs who are working under a confidentiality agreement, he said, "computer security is an entirely different matter."

"The ease with which entire databases can be reproduced or transmitted radically alters the security stakes and requires a rebalancing of the factors that permitted unredacted information to be disclosed in paper form," he said. He added that disclosure of the codes and documentation required to utilize the databases would provide access to the "highly confidential" techniques used by prison authorities to record and store data.

In the end, Judge Lynch said the plaintiffs had not made the necessary showing that access to the databases was so critical as to outweigh the burden on New York States.

Stephane Clare and Midwin Charles of Fried Frank also represented the plaintiffs. Assistant Attorneys General Barbara Demchuk Maddox, Barbara Hathaway and Steven N. Shulman represented the state.

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