The ugly truth about prisoner lawsuits

Like Bronco hype and stories about Bieber Behaving Badly, you can count on a regular supply of reports in the press dealing with how criminals continue to scam the system even while behind bars. The latest installment appeared over the weekend in the Denver Post, a tut-tutter lamenting that inmate lawsuits account for nearly a fifth of the civil actions filed in Colorado's federal district court last year. That's a troubling figure, no question about it, but not for the reason the article suggests but fails to prove -- that the vast majority of those claims must be frivolous.

Federal judges trot out the figures about prisoner lawsuits periodically as a way of reminding us all that they are badly understaffed. That's been the case in Colorado for decades; the district has been a judge or two short since the early 1980s, a situation that's created one of the worst federal backlogs, particularly of civil cases, in the entire country. The situation is compounded by the fact that Colorado has so many state and private facilities, not to mention the federal supermax in Florence (a magnet for civil rights claims in itself). But the bare figures don't tell you how many of the complaints are groundless and quickly dismissed or how many might have a legitimate basis.

Nearly twenty years ago, Congress attempted to stem the flow of presumably frivolous prisoner lawsuits with the passage of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which was supposed to make it more difficult for inmates to seek an injunction against, say, bad haircuts. But the number of lawsuits filed by prisoners continues to grow -- in part because there are more people incarcerated now than in 1996 -- and there's little evidence that the PLRA has helped to filter out frivolous claims. In fact, some critics argue that the legislation has simply made it more difficult to obtain relief for actual civil rights violations than ever before.

There are certainly tort-happy jailhouse lawyers who continue to file one action after another until some judge muzzles them for abusing the system. But to treat all prisoner claims as frivolous would be to ignore serious claims about sexual abuse, the treatment of the mentally ill, overuse of solitary confinement, and other battles now being waged in federal court.

Beyond the civil litigation, it's also worth noting that prisoners sometimes pursue efforts to reopen their criminal cases well after the standard appeals process is exhausted. Most of those act as their own attorneys, and their efforts -- which usually hinge on claims of ineffective counsel at trial -- go nowhere. This week's feature, "Down to the Bones," examines a homicide case that's a rare exception to that rule -- admitted meth cook Michael Mapps actually got his 2006 felony murder conviction overturned five years later, after a judge found that his attorney had removed and then replaced evidence in the case, creating a conflict of interest with his client. But for Mapps to get that evidence in front of a judge took years and a substantial financial sacrifice from members of his family to pay for additional legal help.

Mapps died in prison last year, still awaiting his new trial. Justice delayed often is justice denied.

More from our Prison Life archive circa May 2013: "Troy Anderson: Are prisoner's conditions worse since winning supermax lawsuit?"

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast