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PLN editor quoted in article about prisoner lawsuits in New Jersey

Star-Ledger, Jan. 1, 2010.
PLN editor quoted in article about prisoner lawsuits in New Jersey - Star-Ledger 2010

N.J. inmates submit hundreds of lawsuits each year, despite little chance of success

Published: Sunday, July 25, 2010, 7:21 PM
Updated: Sunday, July 25, 2010, 9:08 PM

Joe Ryan/The Star-Ledger

PATERSON — Like so many others, the lawsuit was written by hand and riddled with spelling errors.

It came from an inmate at Passaic County Jail. He told of being denied food and water, days without a shower and getting kicked by a guard.

“All of my efforts to file charges have been ignored by the jail, breaking my constitutional rights,” wrote Albert Mullings, 31, who was charged with burglary and other crimes.

His lawsuit, filed last month in federal court in Newark, is among hundreds submitted each year by inmates in New Jersey. Most are drafted by the prisoners themselves, people whose legal experience is typically limited to their own prosecution. Some of the suits are illegible. Some are written in Spanish. Many are derided as frivolous. And combined, they account for one of every seven federal lawsuits filed in New Jersey, creating a tremendous workload for the court system.

Yet buried among the often muddled arguments of jailhouse lawyers, these suits occasionally contain salient legal points — and, once in a great while, one succeeds.

“They often do present interesting legal issues,” said Lawrence S. Lustberg, who directs a program for the Newarkbased law firm Gibbons that provides legal services in constitutional-rights cases, including for inmates.

The number of suits filed by New Jersey inmates has been climbing steadily, up 45 percent since 2006. Last year prisoners filed more than 1,100. A sampling of the complaints filed last month include that of an inmate who said officials at Hudson County Correctional Center refused to investigate after he was raped by a fellow inmate. Another inmate wrote that overcrowding at the Camden County jail had led to unsafe conditions. A third said he cut his legs on exercise equipment at Southern State Correctional Facility in Cumberland County, requiring 43 staples.

Officials at the facilities either denied the allegations or declined comment. Howard Goldberg, chief of litigation for Camden County, said the jail is no longer overcrowded.

A spokesman for the Passaic County Jail said Albert Mullings’ allegations were “totally unfounded.”

The charges against Mullings were dropped last week and he was released from jail.

Perhaps the most momentous such lawsuit was filed in Florida by Clarence Earl Gideon, who in 1961 was sentenced to five years in prison for stealing a few dollars and bottles of beer from a pool hall. Gideon had represented himself during his trial because he couldn’t afford a lawyer.

So Gideon wrote — in pencil — to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1963, the justices ruled in his favor, saying courts must provide a lawyer for anyone charged with a serious crime who cannot afford his own attorney.

Gideon (who was acquitted in his retrial) was the exception of all exceptions. But other inmate lawsuits have nudged the system. In 2001, a suit filed by an inmate at a state facility for convicted sex offenders at Avenel led to a settlement revamping the way the facility treated diabetics. And in 2005, the state settled a case with a convicted murderer at East Jersey State Prison, allowing him to practice Wicca, a form of witchcraft.

Still, most inmate lawsuits go nowhere.

It is rare for New Jersey to settle with an inmate, said Dianne M. Moratti, a deputy state attorney general. The state prevails in 95 percent of such cases, she said. Sometimes officials will go to trial instead of paying even a $1 settlement.

"The point needs to be made that we do not settle frivolous lawsuits. It’s too expensive in the long run," Moratti said.

In her 11 years overseeing the unit, inmates have become increasingly sophisticated at litigating, Moratti added. "There are some I have seen from inmates that I would have sworn were written by a lawyer. I just think they have honed their skills," she said.


Nationally, the number of inmate lawsuits has dropped precipitously since 1996, when Congress made it harder for such suits to be filed. The new law imposed filing fees and forced inmates to exhaust internal jail grievance procedures before turning to the courts.

Proponents of the law pointed to lawsuits in which inmates grumbled about broken cookies and train whistles that disturbed their sleep. Inmate advocates said those were rare exceptions and contended the law made it exceedingly difficult for prisoners to have fair access to the court.

Nonetheless, the suits continue. To process them, the federal courts system in New Jersey employs a team of lawyers. They spend day after day reading the complaints, deciphering lousy handwriting and garbled syntax to search for a valid argument or a reason to dismiss. Then they recommend to a judge whether a suit should proceed.

"The question is when do any of these conflicts rise to the level of a violation of the Constitution," said Garrett E. Brown Jr., the chief judge of New Jersey’s federal courts.

Inmate advocates say the intricacies of the law make it exceedingly difficult for someone behind bars to craft a cogent legal argument. "It’s almost like saying: ‘Hey, you have been diagnosed with brain cancer. Here is an operating room and some books. Go ahead and operate on yourself,’" said Paul Wright, an ex-convict from Vermont who runs a magazine called Prison Legal News.

In most instances after a judge determines a suit has merit, a pro bono lawyer takes over the case. In 2001, two civilly committed sex offenders filed hand-written suits saying a state facility in Kearny had not provided them with adequate mental health treatment. Their case was assigned to lawyers at the Seton Hall Law School’s Center for Social Justice.

"We took the essence of their complaint and structured it into a fully developed legal theory," said Baher Azmy, a Seton Hall Law professor.

Despite objections from the state, U.S. District Judge Dennis M. Cavanaugh allowed several counts of the suit to proceed in 2003. Since then, dozens of inmates have joined the suit, the state has allowed an outside expert to inspect the facility, and the two sides are engaged in settlement negotiations.

Moratti, the deputy attorney general, said she does not view inmate suits as a burden to the state. They are a necessary price for a society that guarantees everyone access to the court system, she said. Moratti also credited the suits with pushing for positive changes at correctional facilities and, on some level, keeping them safer.

"I think that if you do not provide inmates with an avenue of redress with the court system, they may feel they need to take matters into their hands," Moratti said. "If they feel the court system is protecting their rights, they don’t have to protect themselves. Then the officers stay safer. The inmates stay safer. And the visitors stay safer."