Limiting prisoners' ability to sue
July 22, 2001
The ability of state prisoners to file lawsuits against their wardens has been significantly diminished in Mississippi over the last five years, and that's as it should be.
It goes without saying that being imprisoned involves losing certain basic freedoms. Punishment loses its deterrent value if made too comfortable.
Some prison lawsuits are justified Gates vs. Collier, for instance, a 30-year-old lawsuit that demanded improved conditions at Parchman Penitentiary and resulted in a frenzy of prison-building overseen by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Interestingly, a lesser-known result of the case was the dismantling of prison law libraries in 1997. The libraries were replaced by the Mississippi Department of Corrections' Inmate Legal Assistance Program, which provides prisoners with specific information about specific questions. It also restricts lawsuits filed by prisoners to three areas: 1) appeal of sentences; 2) living conditions; and 3) constitutional issues.
While no MDOC official will admit this is the intent, it also limits prisoners' open access to information and means they can't browse through casebooks for lawsuit ideas.
U.S. Supreme Court
Another headache in jail administration is the "jailhouse lawyer," a prisoner who has knocked around the system long enough to become familiar with court procedures, render advice to other inmates and show them how to file homemade lawsuits.
The U.S. Supreme Court has placed a new tool in the hands of jail administrators. The court ruled in April 2001 that a prisoner's First Amendment right to free speech does not extend to assisting other inmates in legal matters.
Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the unanimous opinion in the case of Shaw vs. Murphy.
Is it helping?
Even with these limitations, Mississippi's Inmate Legal Assistance Program helps process thousands of civil lawsuits filed every year by state prisoners. Gia McLeod, ILAP director, reports 90 percent of them never make it past a hearing with a judge.
The truth is people serving long prison sentences will do almost anything to occupy their time.
They exercise and earn GEDs and college degrees. Many work on their spiritual health or form clubs. They write letters to pen pals and they still sue their wardens with surprising frequency.
At East Mississippi
Warden Aaron Jagers of East Mississippi Correctional Facility in Lost Gap says the situation has improved.
Jagers retired from the MDOC in April 1999 to become warden of East Mississippi Correctional Facility. The prison is privately owned by the Wackenhut Corporation and currently houses 500 state prisoners.
And, let's not forget that EMCF is a psychiatric prison, which means there are 500 people diagnosed with mental illnesses living there, people who are more than usually paranoid, depressed or psychotic.
No wonder the warden gets sued a lot.
A few examples
A sampling of outstanding lawsuits filed against Jagers in Lauderdale County Circuit Court includes:
A homemade complaint, written in pencil on unlined paper by an inmate serving 25 years for armed robbery. He lost his telephone privileges for 90 days. His lawsuit seeks $50 a day for the loss of his privileges. The file is three-quarters of an inch thick.
A complaint written on a fill-in-the-blank form by a prisoner serving 19 years for aggravated assault and sexual assault. He said he was upset because, as a medicated patient, he was not allowed to have a razor to "maintain personal hygiene." He later sought to enjoin five more prisoners in a "class action" lawsuit.
A complaint written in ink on unlined paper by a prisoner serving a 15-year sentence for fraud and sale of cocaine. He claimed a guard stabbed him in the hand, and demanded transfer to another facility because he was in fear of his life. While the file is officially still open, the petitioner in this case got what he asked for and has been transferred to Parchman's maximum security lock-down.
Jagers is philosophical about it.
Suzanne Monk is managing editor of The Meridian Star. Call her at 693-1551, ext. 3229, or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.