This project started last month when I reviewed my county sheriff’s website. You might wonder why I did? Well, it’s because our county judge announced that the county jail passed state inspection recently. And the questions bounced around in my head:
· What metrics and checklist get used in Texas or any state to inspect prisons?
· Is it easy to pass inspection?
But those questions will be answered in my next blog.
Back to what I discovered first: I found out that sheriff’s department had an online database that listed all current inmates with their birthdates?!? (Insert interrobang)
Since then, I have identified several Texas counties online inmate database searches that list birthdate and/or home address—one even listed marital status. (You can email me for that info). There’s probably more, but I did find some already quite easily. How did I do it? I entered a common name in the fields for first and last names (English and Hispanic names) to yield results.
Here’s some questions that come up.
Don’t people who end up jail deserve to be punished? They broke the law so why respect their right to privacy?
Remember there’s usually many inmates who have yet to be convicted of any crime or tried in a court of law. They may be innocent of any crimes. Some end up in jail by mistake but can’t access an attorney or afford to pay the fees to get out.
No inmates, convicted or not, deserve to be the victims of identity theft. Isn’t jail supposed to be rehabilitative and help transition people back into society, to find work and a place to live? Jail shouldn’t make it easy to unnecessarily damage one’s credit rating or ability to find work.
Why does listing birth date matter?
It puts a person at far greater risk for identity theft than just age.
Why does listing an inmate’s home address matter?
The difference is a person can contest a listing in a phone book. A person can have their address and phone number unlisted. Whereas an inmate in a county jail has NO choice in making their address listed right next to their name for easy location. Perhaps even unlisted phone book info can be posted? I don't know (maybe someone reading this has a way to independently verify this if they know someone know someone in prison with an unlisted address). In addition, in the case of a more common name listed in a phone book, it is hard to know which person is assigned to which address. The online database narrows down that info immediately. But for whose convenience?
How far back does your county list inmates on its public database?
Some counties only list those who are in jail and then with a release date within a 24-48 hour period of the inmate showing on the database after release date. Others? Well, one county sample still listed an inmate booked and released in 1994. There’s some that may go even farther back. That means information stays out for a REALLY LONG time.
The Next Step: Check into your County/City and Be an Advocate for Inmates
I hope you’ll join me in this effort across the United States and share it with those you know. First, check if/how inmates’ home address/birth date are listed publicly online in the county/area you live in, work in, visit. Don’t wait until someone you care about lands in jail to find out how the jail posts inmate information.
Here's the steps I took that resulted in my county removing the online public listing of inmates' date of birth date and replacing with age (interesting how quickly they did after I called the right person):
1. I wrote to the Sheriff Community Relations department to ask why they have the birth date (or home address in other cases) listed for all county jail inmates? Other counties list ONLY age and no address. TIP: Try this strategy when calling/emailing sheriff/police departments: Suggest politely that it is in their best interest to stop easily publicly listing private information like birth date and home address. You are helping counties/cities so they can avoid expensive lawsuits by posting info like birth date/home address. Although I was told by sheriff staff that posting birth date in this way is legal in Texas.
2. My county sheriff's department first response was that the county doesn't have time to withhold information and look up records. So, it’s the saving time and money argument by having all the information posted for anyone to see. I didn’t accept that. So, I wrote back to show that some counties only list age.
3. The contact referred me to the Public Information Act. That act appeared to still say age NOT birth date was public information. See page 160 of Texas Public Information Act (link to pdf: https://www.texasattorneygeneral.gov/sites/default/files/files/divisions/open-government/publicinfo_hb.pdf ).
4. I went back to that Sheriff department with my questions about the Public Information Act and they referred me to the Office of Attorney General (OAG) Info Hotline. The OAG individual did not give me a definite answer and referred me back to the county district attorney's office.
5. I contacted the county district attorney office by email. They told me days later after a second email to contact the sheriff's department and ask for the Captain of the Records Division.
6. The captain’s actions were the turning point in all this bureaucracy. He was empathetic and said he would present my concern to the sheriff the next day. He said that he checked with the legal department to find out that it is apparently legal to post the birth date, at least in Texas. He added: But the argument should be: Is there wisdom in allowing such private information to be made easily publicly available? The sheriff said in response to the captain, "Of course we should change the database to show age, not birth date. Why didn't this get done before?" The captain explained to the sheriff that he was not over the division that handles that. The IT department has since replaced the birth date listing with only the age.
6. The ground for making this change lies in Texas Government Code 552.029 page 160.
https://texas.public.law/statutes/tex._gov't_code_section_552.029 Ideally it would be excellent to amend laws in Texas and across the nation to state that inmates’ home address and date of birth are not allowed to be publicly listed online.
“In order for prisons to truly serve the public, the people who run them would do well to aspire to the words of Thomas Mott Osborne, the storied warden of New York's Sing Sing Prison in the early part of the twentieth century, who vowed, 'We will turn this prison from a scrap heap into a repair shop.”
― Piper Kerman