The ACLU of Massachusetts today filed a public records lawsuit against the Office of the State Auditor for wrongfully withholding documents related to prisoner deaths and health care at houses of correction in two counties.  

In March 2023, the Office of the State Auditor issued a pair of public audit reports concerning deaths and health care of people held by the Plymouth County and Barnstable County sheriffs' departments respectively. Both reports were similarly incomplete, with the Office of the State Auditor removing its audit results on “an issue that includes confidential information.” The ACLU submitted a public records request for the complete reports. The Office of the State Auditor refused to produce the complete reports, instead producing heavily redacted versions that still did not describe the redacted “issue.” 

“Without the complete reports, the public is unable to assess whether the ‘issue’ discovered by the Auditor’s Office presents a risk to prisoner health and safety, or otherwise creates risks for people in custody,” said Daniel McFadden, staff attorney at the ACLU of Massachusetts. “Even if there is underlying confidential information that informed the audits, the audit results should not be confidential. Our government should always strive for transparency and openness—especially when it relates to the life and death of people in its custody.” 

The redacted reports each contain an additional section—which was not included in the public reports—that is entirely redacted. Furthermore, the redacted reports also indicate that additional text was removed from other sections of the public report without any way for the public to discern that it was missing. In some instances, the redacted text appears to qualify the report’s overall conclusions, even though the same conclusions were presented to the public without any indication of this qualification. 

The Office of the State Auditor justified its redactions with a reference to a Public Records Law exemption concerning records that, in the words of the Supreme Judicial Court, “a terrorist would find useful to maximize damage.” The Auditor’s Office has not explained how this exemption would apply to information concerning the health care for incarcerated people. 

The lawsuit, filed in Suffolk County Superior Court, demands the complete audit reports.  The ACLU of Massachusetts is represented in this case by Natalie Panariello of the law firm Foley Hoag LLP in Boston.