Tracking Transparency: Why prison surveillance videos are rarely released to the public
DRAPER, Utah – Videos obtained by the KSL Investigators offer the first look at the violence that erupted inside prison walls after a 2019 decision to house two rival gangs together.
Utah prison officials aren’t willing to talk about that controversial decision, citing a pending lawsuit. And they never intended for the public to see surveillance footage of the fights. KSL was recording when parts of the surveillance video of the fights on Jan. 7 and Feb. 13, 2020, were shown in open court. Later, the KSL Investigators filed a public records request seeking the full video from Utah’s Department of Corrections.
That request, filed under Utah’s Government Records Access Management Act, was denied.
The department argued surveillance footage is exempt from GRAMA and even if it weren’t, “releasing it would jeopardize the life and safety of individuals and the safety and security of the Department’s secure facilities.”
KSL appealed that decision, pointing out that portions of the videos were made public already and corrections officers discussed their response to the incident at length in open court. Additionally, all inmates have moved out of the old Draper prison, the facility shown in the surveillance videos. With big plans underway to redevelop the site, it’s almost certain it will never house prisoners again.
But the department also denied that appeal, again citing concerns about safety and security. Deputy Director James Hudspeth wrote in the denial letter, “only a portion was shown in court. Utah Department of Corrections does not have to provide footage that has not been released to the public.”
Hudspeth also cited concerns that gang members shown in the videos could face retaliation from rival gangs or their own, if the footage was released.
“The video’s release would create risks to those individuals, jeopardize the security or safety of the correctional facility, and interfere with the offender’s incarceration, as gangs act on what they see in the video,” Hudspeth wrote.
KSL also requested the clips shown in open court from the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office, which denied the request and a subsequent appeal. The office cited a recent change to GRAMA they claim prevents them from releasing a record they obtained from another government agency. KSL’s attorneys continue to fight for full public access.
Multiple families with loved ones who are incarcerated tell the KSL Investigators they want prison officials to face more transparency and accountability in how they manage the people in their custody and respond to incidents of violence.
“They’re playing with people’s lives,” Alex Veloz, the father of a man recently injured in a fight at the state’s new Salt Lake prison said.
Veloz said with the stakes so high, the public has a right to know more about what’s going on inside prison walls.
“What are you trying to hide?” he asked.
Late Thursday afternoon, much more footage of the fight on Jan. 7 was delivered to the KSL newsroom from an outside source. The KSL Investigators are in the process of viewing and verifying that video.
Have you experienced something you think just isn’t right? The KSL Investigators want to help. Submit your tip at firstname.lastname@example.org or 385-707-6153 so we can get working for you.
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