,HARRISBURG -- The Pennsylvania Corrections Department's definition of "inclement weather" is not a state secret, a judicial panel ruled Thursday.
The three state Commonwealth Court judges ordered the department to turn over the information to a prisoner who believes that he and other inmates at the Smithfield state prison are being forced to exercise indoors more often than necessary.
State law requires inmates who are not in segregation or on disciplinary status to be given two hours of daily outdoor exercise, weather permitting. But it is the department that decides what constitutes bad weather.
Inmate Roger Buehl claims that outdoor exercise at Smithfield is routinely canceled for conditions that would not typically be considered inclement -- for example, drizzling rain or even overcast skies.
Buehl, 48, who is serving life for a triple murder committed 26 years ago, filed a request for the definition under the state Right-to-Know law.
The department twice rejected his request, arguing that the information should be excluded from the Right-to-Know law because its release could jeopardize the safety and security of employees and other inmates at the prison in Huntingdon County in south-central Pennsylvania.
The judges dismissed the department's concerns as speculative.
The panel said the definition of bad weather is unlike other materials that the court has allowed to be kept secret, such as a manual used to determine the level of danger that an inmate poses. Any security concerns about the release of the definition are outweighed by the public's interest in ensuring that a state agency is properly carrying out its mission, it said.
"'Inclement weather' is objectively based," Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt wrote in the unanimous opinion. "On any given day, all staff and all inmates ought to be able to know, and indeed agree, on whether exercise will take place indoors or outdoors."
Department spokeswoman Sue McNaughton said officials do not plan to appeal the ruling and "will follow the direction of the court."
The department does not have a separate definition of "inclement weather," because that is only one factor in deciding whether outdoor recreation should be canceled, McNaughton said. Security or health and safety considerations also are considered, she said.
Guidelines say officials should consider certain weather conditions -- rain, fog, heavy snow, thunderstorms, cold weather with wind chill temperatures of 15 degrees or colder, hot weather of 95 degrees or hotter combined with high humidity and access to shade and water -- in making daily decisions about whether inmates will be allowed into the prison yard, she said.
"There are no absolutes in canceling yard (privileges), as numerous factors must be considered in making such a determination," she said.
Buehl was originally sentenced to death for the shooting deaths of Courtlandt Gross, a founder and former chairman of Lockheed Corp., and his wife and their housekeeper after he broke into their Villanova home in July 1982. The term was later reduced because of errors made by his former lawyer.