During the 1960s, a series of U.S. Supreme Court rulings opened the way for inmates to bring civil-liberties suits in federal court alleging mistreatment or unlawful conditions in state prisons. Subsequent rulings guaranteed both state and federal inmates access to law libraries in order to prepare their cases.
Since most prisoners have a lot of time on their hands, a great many lawsuits have ensued. During the early 1960s, only a few hundred prisoners filed suit in federal courts every year. During 1993, there were more than 33,000 such suits—nearly one in six of all civil cases filed in federal court. (The size of the nation’s prison population merely quadrupled during that time.)
Ninety-seven percent of these cases are dismissed before trial, and of those that continue further, only 13 percent result in favorable rulings for inmates, the lowest success rate for any kind of federal civil suit. The claims can be amazingly frivolous. Alfred Wyatt, serving time in New York for attempted robbery, alleges that a recent stay on Rikers Island was so traumatic that he started arguing with his fiancée, who left him; he wants $150,000 in damages. Kenneth Parker, a Nevada inmate sentenced to 15 years for robbery, filed a suit charging that the prison canteen sold him a jar of smooth peanut butter when he wanted chunky; he claimed $5,500 worth of emotional distress. Roy Cleninden, another New York state prisoner, wanted $1 million in compensation for an incident in which a guard let Cleninden’s ice cream melt. (Parker and Cleninden’s cases were both dismissed.)
State lawyers and court and corrections officials are trying to figure out a way to weed out frivolous charges while ensuring that prisoners can seek redress for legitimate claims. One possible solution is to set up a prefiling screening procedure for state inmates. The federal prisons already have such a system, in which prisoners must go through an administrative grievance process before they can sue. Another method, in use in northern New York’s federal court district since 1985, is to require inmates to pay a small portion of their prison income as a filing fee; annual prisoner filings have fallen by almost a third since the court started the fee system.