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WILL NEW LAW CURB VALID AS WELL AS FRIVOLOUS INMATE SUITS?

Prison inmates sometimes sue over the darnedest things: a broken cookie at mealtime or having to wear cheap tennis shoes. But then there are the female inmates who said they were raped by guards.

Those women won their 1994 lawsuit against the District of Columbia Department of Corrections. Among other things, a federal judge ordered officials to stop shackling female inmates while they were in labor.But that order could be thrown out under a new federal law that limits all types of prisoner civil-rights lawsuits, from trivial claims to those alleging serious violations of constitutional rights.

Backers of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which President Clinton signed last month as part of a budget bill, say the law will discourage frivolous lawsuits and ensure that court orders seek to remedy only specific violations of prisoners' rights.

"It's an attempt to rein in the costs without compromising courts' ability to hear legitimate claims," says Sarah Vandenbraak, chief counsel of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, which supports the law. She predicts many states now will seek an end to court orders governing prison conditions.

Opponents say the law will deter even valid claims - those alleging overcrowding, brutality or inadequate medical care or diet.

"Although the act was advertised as an attack on frivolous litigation, it actually is an attack on litigation of great merit," says Elizabeth Alexander of the American Civil Liberties Union's national prison project.

Prisoners filed 41,679 civil-rights lawsuits nationwide last year, more than double the 19,448 claims filed in 1985. The National Association of Attorneys General estimates such lawsuits cost states more than $81 million a year.

The new law:

- Requires inmates to pay the $120 federal-court filing fee and limit the award of attorneys' fees in successful lawsuits.

- Requires judges to screen all inmate complaints against the federal government and immediately dismiss those deemed frivolous or without merit. Good-time credits prisoners earn toward early release could be revoked if they file a malicious lawsuit.

- Bars prisoners from suing the federal government for mental or emotional injury unless there also was a physical injury.

Inmates seeking to press frivolous claims could be daunted by the filing fee. If they still file, a judge might throw the case out anyway.

But the law also will affect valid claims that lead to court orders requiring improvements in prison conditions. In such cases:

- Court orders cannot go any further than necessary to correct a violation of particular inmates' federal rights.

- State officials can have court orders lifted after two years unless there is a new finding of an ongoing violation of federal rights.

- Any order requiring prisoners' release to reduce overcrowding must be approved by a three-judge court.

Opponents say those provisions will require, in effect, a mini-trial every two years to see if a court order should remain in effect. That would create substantial new costs for the federal judiciary, the states and prisoners.

And, opponents say, most consent decrees no longer will be enforceable because they typically don't involve a government admission of wrongdoing. That could mean more inmate lawsuits going to trial instead of being settled out of court.