Guards sue over inmate attacks

Frustrated by problems with discipline, officers seek personal damages

March 07, 2004|By Richard Fausset | Richard Fausset,LOS ANGELES TIMES

For years, California's prison guards have been frustrated by a growing number of inmate assaults. Now they want their attackers to pay.

Fed up with a prison discipline system they find ineffectual, corrections officers are starting to sue inmates to collect personal damages. The idea is to target any assets the inmates hold outside of prison - or, in the case of poor inmates, whatever possessions they keep on the inside, such as TVs, hot plates and petty-cash "trust" accounts used to buy snacks.

"One has to remember that it's not about the money, it's about holding these convicted felons accountable for their actions," state corrections Lt. Charles Hughes wrote on the Web site of an employees group organizing the suits. "It may be small potatoes to you and me, but ask an inmate if he wants you to own his trust account."

As news of the strategy spreads around California, prisoner advocates are deriding it as excessively cruel. Some attorneys say the suits could entangle the courts in a costly web of hearings, appeals and counterclaims.

"This is incredibly mean-spirited," said John Scott, a San Francisco attorney who represents inmates' families and prison employees in civil matters.

For the legal system, Scott added, "it's a Pandora's box."

The lawsuits come at a tumultuous time for California's prison system, and especially for its corrections officers. Their union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, is under scrutiny for exerting excessive influence on the nation's largest penal system, and in January a federal report concluded that a systemwide "code of silence" existed to protect problem guards.

The union is taking no position on the new strategy, and Corrections Department spokesmen declined to comment on it.

To some critics, the idea of going after inmates' petty cash is another example of a system out of control. State Sen. Gloria Romero, a Los Angeles Democrat and chairwoman of recent hearings on prison reform, wonders if the suits are part of a "publicity blitz" to offset bad press about prison guards.

While acknowledging that prison guards have a tough job, Romero said filing civil suits against inmates "is a sledgehammer approach. I think there are other ways we can address the issue."

Hughes, an officer at the Lancaster state prison, is executive director of a recently formed employees group, the California Staff Assault Task Force. With a dues-paying roster of more than 2,900 prison workers, the organization has helped four corrections officers file small-claims lawsuits against inmates in Los Angeles County and plans to file more across the state.

Another group, the California Correctional Crime Victims Coalition, is also planning to bring civil suits against inmates, according to its executive director, Lisa Northam.

Members of Hughes' group say the actions are necessary to restore a balance of power that has tilted toward inmates in recent years. With stricter limits on the use of force, guards say they feel more vulnerable than they did 10 or 20 years ago.

Hughes said guards are also frustrated by a system that allows inmates to make frivolous complaints against the staff but often fails to mete out meaningful punishments to prisoners who step out of line.

"The department is failing to protect us," said Hughes, who added that the lawsuits fell well within the officers' rights. "If your neighbor came over and stuck a pitchfork in your gut, what would happen? The [district attorney] would file charges. But you'd also go after him civilly."

Prosecutors often decline to file charges against inmates who assault guards, considering such cases a waste of tax money, especially when the prisoners are serving long sentences. Instead, many assault cases are taken up by the prisons' internal justice system. Inmates found guilty can face extended sentences, the loss of good-time credits and assignments to "special housing units" that limit their privileges.

But task force members say longer sentences mean nothing to a prisoner with multiple life terms. They also say that prisoners in the special housing units can still enjoy TV and radio, time in the exercise yard and visiting privileges. (The possession of TVs and radios in these areas might soon be banned under a proposed rule change.)

Although individual officers might have sued inmates in the past, prison experts say the new efforts mark the first organized attempt by guards to take advantage of a 1982 change in state law making it easier for police and other peace officers to sue people who attack them at work.

Before police and other groups lobbied for the change, the assumption was that the risk of such injuries was understood to be part of public safety jobs, said Dan Zeidman, an El Cajon plaintiffs attorney who represents police in civil suits. Since the change, Zeidman has represented hundreds of police officers in such lawsuits.

Though judgments are expected to be small in most successful cases, critics fear that the Corrections Department will incur big expenses because of the suits.

Gretchen Newby, executive director of the inmate aid group Friends Outside, agreed that guards should have a right to sue their attackers. But she is worried that the suits could harm the inmates' innocent family members. She envisioned situations in which an inmate's spouse loses the family car - or children lose funds for college.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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