Prisoners' civil rights suits proliferate, clog federal courts

March 21, 1994|By New York Times News Service

It was melted ice cream that led Roy Clendinen to file a civil rights suit in 1992, demanding $1 million for the "cruel and unusual punishment" he suffered when a guard at Mohawk state prison near Syracuse refused to refrigerate the snack.

Another New York inmate, Reginald Troy, who developed an ulcer while a prisoner at the Shawangunk state prison Wallkill, filed his civilrights suit in 1991, claiming it was unconstitutional not to provide him lamb, veal and oysters for his meals -- foods allowed by a doctor, but not required.

The two cases, ultimately dismissed, are among tens of thousands of civil rights suits brought in recent years by inmates protesting prison conditions in New York and elsewhere. Such suits have become one of the largest categories of federal civil filings.

Over the years, the civil rights suits have become a powerful method to force improvements in prison medical care, legal access and inmate treatment. But along with such landmark cases have come a bounty of frivolous and groundless complaints.

The lawsuits, brought by inmates in federal and state prisons, have burdened the courts and overwhelmed the state attorneys who have to defend their prison systems, costing taxpayers millions in legal fees.

The number of prisoner lawsuits have grown from just a few hundred a year during the 1960s to more than 33,000 last year, when they made up 15 percent of all civil suits filed in the federal courts.

Of these cases, about 97 percent were dismissed long before trial. Of those that continued on, only 13 percent resulted in any success for the prisoner -- the worst rate of any type of civil suit filed in federal court.

"I mean, 70 percent of these don't even state a complaint on which relief can be granted," said Thomas J. McAvoy, the chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York in Albany. "There may be deprivation, but it doesn't rise to the level of a constitutional violation."

As defined by the U.S. Supreme Court, a constitutional violation of a prisoner's rights involves denial of the "minimal civilized measure of life's necessities" or the use of force "repugnant to the conscience of mankind."

Over 97 percent of prisoner civil rights suits are filed by inmates of state prisons, in part because federal prisoners are required to use a grievance process before filing a lawsuit.

A result is that the largest burden has fallen on the states to defend against the lawsuits.

The proliferation of cases has led some states, including New York, to begin looking at ways to curb prisoners' access to the courts. Such measures might include requiring inmates to exhaust prison grievance procedures before filing suit, requiring a small filing fee, and setting up a screening system for cases before they are filed in federal courts.

Some inmates, prisoner advocates and scholars say that the burden caused by prisoner suits is exaggerated and that the system should be left alone.

Theodore Eisenberg, a professor of law at Cornell University, said that despite the number of suits, the frivolous and trivial cases are easily dismissed and consume little time.

He said that while the overall success rate of inmate suits appears dismal, it is as much a product of the prisoners' lack of legal experience and counsel than anything else. A study he conducted on cases filed in 1981 showed that the suits were much more successful, nearly matching the rates of other civil suits, when handled by attorneys.

Lawyers generally take on stronger cases, either being appointed by the courts or choosing to handle a case.

Erwin Chemerinsky, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Southern California, added that the number of suits underscores a grim reality of modern prison life: too many inmates, too few cells and too little attention.

While Mr. Chemerinsky agreed that many suits are trivial, he said that together, they paint a disturbing portrait of overcrowding and deterioration that is only growing worse.

"These are people with no way of protest except through the courts," Mr. Chemerinsky said. "The reality is that there are frivolous suits, but if you take away the prisoners' ability to sue, they will have no place to go. Is that what we really want?"

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