Frivolous lawsuit? Not up to prison officials to decide

March 07, 2010|By Peter Hermann

Prison inmates throughout the country fill local courthouses with lawsuits that appear frivolous.

Raymond Taylor, serving three life sentences for attempted murder, seemed to have joined this dubious group when he sued a woman in a petty dispute over drawings of cartoon characters. Taylor was locked in a cell in Cumberland. The defendant - who Taylor claimed never paid him $685 for his purported sketches of Shrek and Garfield to be sold at a flea market - lived 256 miles away in Princess Anne.

And so last week, with a court date set for March 1, authorities put Taylor in a transport van and headed toward the Eastern Shore.

They stopped briefly in Hagerstown, and then at the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center in downtown Baltimore, a prisoner commuter hub of sorts in which more than 60 inmates a day pass through on their way to courthouses, medical treatment and even home.

Authorities say Taylor used this layover to engineer his escape. Improperly put in a temporary cell with a burglar being set free, they say Taylor switched IDs with the man and managed to talk his way through three more security checks that failed to detect the ruse before being mistakenly let out onto East Madison Street. He was captured a day later in West Virginia.

Why on earth would corrections officials allow an inmate - who in 2004 in Baltimore lined his ex-girlfriend and her two young children against a headboard and shot each in the head and chest - a trip at taxpayer expense to press a trivial civil claim?

The short answer is that they have to, because anyone suing anyone, even an inmate, has a right to appear in court. Judges can and often do toss claims when the litigant doesn't appear. And if the litigant is locked up, the state is required to get him to court, even if it requires an intricate, expensive and risky sojourn across the Chesapeake Bay in a prison van.

"It's not up to the executive department to decide what's a frivolous lawsuit," said Rick Binetti, a spokesman for the state prison system. He could not provide a cost for moving an inmate across the state, but he did say that the vast majority of inmate travel involves trips to criminal court for their cases, to medical treatment and to be released, and only a small percentage is related to civil matters.

It's a complicated and dangerous exercise to move an inmate anywhere, requiring planning, security, paperwork and coordination between institutions. And each step increases the chances that someone somewhere will make a mistake. Kim Howard, president of the Maryland Correctional Union, which represents correctional officers, said inmates are even restricted from visiting with family before big moves to prevent a planned escape.

"We would prefer not to move these people but the legislature says we have to," Howard said. "They still have rights even though they've broken the law and are in prison."

For years, limits have been placed on the ability of inmates to use civil courts, and prosecutors keep trying to impose even more restrictions, especially on prisoners seeking to overturn their convictions. A federal law passed in 1995 requires inmates to follow a cumbersome administrative grievance process before turning to the courts to claim abuse, which prisoner rights groups say strips prisoners of their ability to fight inhumane treatment and challenge their convictions.

Of course, a frivolous lawsuit to some is a legitimate lawsuit to others.

At one point in 1998, a prolific "jailhouse lawyer" serving 60 years for shooting his wife and mother-in-law, had 11 civil cases pending in Maryland and federal court.

In one, he claimed prison health officials had failed to remove plaque and tartar from his teeth. A federal judge threw that one out. But the inmate also won some, including a $450 judgment against a lawyer who failed to work on an appeal and thousands more dollars in medical negligence claims.

Can or should laws be written allowing inmates to sue in some cases, such as to overturn convictions or allege prisoner abuse, but not in others, such as a private contract disputes that have nothing to do with the crime?

David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project, complained that the question misses the point entirely. Taylor didn't escape from custody because he was on his way to court, but rather because of mistakes made by corrections officers who failed to follow their own rules.

He said current restrictions on inmate lawsuits are so onerous that "it puts prison officials in charge of whether the prisoners they oversee get access to the courts. ... The bottom line is about equality and rule of law. Do we have one set of rules for everyone or do we single out an unpopular minority and a politically powerless group and say you get unequal access to the courts?"

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