Does a prison inmate have a constitutional right to wear Reebock "pumps" instead of the prison-mandated Converse sneakers? Is it cruel and unusual punishment that inmates do not have desks in their prison cells?
Those are but two examples of what the Utah attorney general's office says are frivolous lawsuits filed by inmates that cost taxpayers more than $1 million annually - despite the fact more than 90 percent of the cases are eventually thrown out of court."These lawsuits demonstrate that Utah taxpayers are rightly outraged at having to finance endless litigation against the state over unimaginable trivia," Attorney General Jan Graham said during a press conference Tuesday morning at the Capitol. "If it weren't costing us millions and clogging the courts, it would be funny. Given the realities, the problem is decidedly serious."
Consequently, Graham and the Utah Department of Corrections are proposing changes in state law that would require inmates to pay a filing fee for each suit filed, based on the funds available in the inmate's account; would require inmates to pay court costs and the state's attorney fees if the inmate's suit was judged to be frivolous; would take frivolous lawsuits into consideration during parole hearings; would require inmates to participate in a grievance system before being allowed to file a lawsuit; and would allow for pre-filing orders to restrict litigious inmates' ability to file repetitive and non-meritorious suits.
Graham is also proposing changes in state and federal court rules to create a "triage" analysis of frivolous lawsuits to allow them to be dismissed before significant costs and time are dedicated.
"The problem is that prisoners have nothing to lose in filing suit after suit, sometimes as many as 50 per year for one inmate, and it has become a form of entertainment for them," Graham said. "We will now give them something concrete to lose: money and reduced chance of parole."
Among the frivolous lawsuits filed by inmates in Utah, one inmate deliberately flooded his prison cell and then sued officers who cleaned his cell "because they got his Pinochle cards wet."
Another inmate repeatedly sued the prison, claiming a constitutional right to play more volleyball and participate in the Tournament of Cards.After refusing to eat for two days, one inmate sued the prison for failing to feed him. And in another case, every time a hot meal was delivered to one prisoner, he spit on the guards. He then sued because the substituted sack lunches were not as good.
In another case, the same day one inmate received his requested prayer beads for his Thai-Buddhist religion, he sued to obtain American Indian religious emblems, claiming he was Indian.
Another inmate sued because officers conducting a search of his cell mixed clean and dirty clothes, and another inmate sued because he received a generic form of medication instead of a brand name. And yet another sued to receive the home addresses and phone numbers of state legislators.
"Claims that deprivation of stylish basketball shoes and that wet Pinochle cards violate constitutional rights make a mockery of our judicial system," Graham said.
Graham has joined with attorneys general from all 50 states in asking the U.S. Senate to amend the U.S. Code to impose similar requirements on prisoners using the federal courts.
Graham's proposal is similar to one implemented in Nevada "with great success," said Palmer DePaulis, Graham's chief of staff. "It's taken about half of the case load out of the court system. And it emphasizes dispute resolution rather than burdening the court system. We think it has tremendous potential here."