Cases Range From Significant to Silly : Jail-House Lawyers Take Complaints to Court
Knowing one’s way around a law library is such a marketable skill at Nevada’s maximum-security prison that some inmates are charging fellow prisoners hundreds of dollars for legal advice.
However, one jail-house lawyer saw a thriving practice end when prison officials received a letter from the parents of another inmate, respectfully inquiring where to send the $1,000 to pay for their son’s inmate law clerk.
Charging for legal advice is forbidden, and the offending law clerk was fired from his $25-a-month prison job. But Warden Harold Whitley concedes that the practice of clerks charging for their services will continue.
It’s a matter of supply and demand.
It’s also symptomatic of the flood of inmate lawsuits unleashed by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1960s.
There have always been a few inmates who fought their convictions after incarceration, and many prisoners handle such legal matters as divorce while behind bars. But it wasn’t until the Supreme Court ruled that conditions of a prisoner’s confinement are subject to judicial review that the deluge began.
The number of inmate civil rights complaints across the country rose from 218 in 1966 to 2,166 in 1970, according to a 1984 survey by George Cole and Jonathon Silbert.
By 1983, a total of 18,856 inmate lawsuits were filed in federal courts, most arguing that prison conditions violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. During the same 20-year period, inmate populations doubled nationwide.
Last year, Nevada’s inmates filed 335 cases in federal courts, accounting for 18% of the total load of 1,826. In other states, inmate suits account for fully a third of all federal suits, the study said.
While federal courts don’t keep official statistics on costs, Cole and Silbert cited a Virginia study estimating that each prisoner suit costs a court between $1,200 and $1,500 to process, even though more than nine out of 10 are dismissed after only perfunctory consideration.
In the 1970s, massive civil rights actions forced major prison reforms in several states, including Nevada. But those suits are the rare exception these days.
Some of today’s inmate suits contain at least a germ of merit, but many others are plain silly: A female prisoner in Nevada filed suit this spring complaining that she was being bombarded with a ray gun.
Many other suits voice complaints that are too picayune to merit federal court attention. Nearly half involve prisoners’ allegations of theft of personal property.
Inmate litigation is expensive and time-consuming for everyone from court clerks to judges to prison officials. But criticism of the current system is muted by a feeling among some penologists that the suits may be making the nation’s prisons safer.
Whitley said some of his guards have been cowed by inmates threatening to sue. Much of his and his staff’s time is taken up with paper work required by the suits. And the few cases that are successful have cut into his budget.
“But, no, I would not want to completely do away with them,” he said. “They serve a purpose. They really have worked as a safety valve.” He explained that the reward for all the hassle and expense of inmate litigation is that it now takes less physical force to keep prisoners in line.
Whitley said the relentless boredom of prison existence is relieved for some by doing legal research. For others, the desire to reform prison conditions has made life in prison meaningful. Still others get the attention from authorities that once required an act of violence.
Nevada psychologist W. Mace Knapp put it more technically: “The lawsuits are ways of channeling their feelings of rage and often their psychopathology to attack us on a more socially sanctioned avenue.”
The effect that the “writ writers” have had on prison life is seen in files kept on each inmate who uses the prison law library.
The officer in charge of the library, Mike Jenkins, said he has a jacket on 236 inmates out of a total population of about 600. Jenkins estimated that about 20% of the inmates use the library on a regular basis.
With seating limited, just getting into the library can be difficult. But for most inmates, the problems just begin once they get inside.
Finding their way around a law library is a difficult task for the untrained and poorly educated, hence the prestige enjoyed by the dozen inmate law clerks who help their fellow prisoners prepare legal action.
That advice usually consists of help in researching precedents, proper filing of forms and, occasionally, a suggestion that a particular complaint should be lodged first with prison authorities. The clerks also represent inmates before internal disciplinary boards.
Russell White, sentenced to life for killing a teen-aged girl, is the “firm’s” criminal specialist. And he won’t help just anybody.
“I more or less tell them I don’t want to talk to them unless they got 45 years or more to serve,” White said. “I equate myself as the inmate’s public defender.”
Respected by Others
White’s legal abilities are respected by inmates, and he has even won the grudging admiration of the guards for having three of his five convictions thrown out on technicalities.
If White is the criminal specialist, Charles Collier is the firm’s civil law expert.
Collier, serving life for rape and murder, said his client list stands at 45. He is best known among prisoners and guards for successfully forcing authorities to provide law books for those confined to their cells.