They Sue, You Pay

November 4, 2004 -- Posted at:11:00pm CST

LITTLE ROCK, AR - Prior to the 1960s, inmates didn't have many rights. The federal government could not interfere with state operations. Of course, today prisoners have many of the same rights you and I do; a right to an education, a right to be treated lawfully, and a right to live in a healthy environment. They also have the right to complain.

"Inmate lawsuits. Many of them are comical. Let's face it," commented Dina Tyler, Communications Director for the Arkansas Department of Correction.

She has been working for the Arkansas Department of Correction for more than eight years. During that time period, she's heard complaints from prisoners about nearly any topic you can imagine: from education...

Tyler explained, "Back I guess in the 70s, inmates pretty much were required to go to school. We had an inmate who didn't want to go to school. He absolutely refused to go to school, and he ended up filing suit over it, claiming it was his god given right to remain ignorant. The judge looked at the case and said, yeah you're right. It is your right to remain ignorant, but if they say to go to school, you're going to school. Whether you learn anything or not that's your business." long fingernails...

Tyler elaborated, " the point that they were a danger to the officers around him, because they could be used as a weapon and really hurt somebody. Because of that, we cut his fingernails. He then sued us for cutting his fingernails, because that was cruel and unusual punishment."

...even something as simple as moo juice and muslix.

"Several years ago, an inmate at the Cummins unit tried to file suit, and did file suit. It was dismissed, because he didn't like the way his breakfast had been served to him. He thought his cereal and milk should have been served to him earlier," added Dina Tyler.

About 8,000 grievances are currently handled within the prison system each year.

Tyler went on to say, "Probably in the 90s, we had a suit filed by an inmate who was a heavy smoker, and at that time inmates could still use tobacco products, that has since changed. The heavy smoker sued us over exposure to second hand smoke."

There are about 15 Grievance Officers who look through complaints. They make about $28,000 on average. There's also an attorney who represents the Department of Correction. That person makes about $60,000. That's nearly half a million dollars spent each year on salaries alone, and that's just for the Department of Correction.

The process also drains resources from other groups depending on the type of complaint: the Office of the Attorney General, the Legislative Claims Review Subcommittee and the State Claims Commission.

Norman Hodges, Jr..........., Director of the State Claims Commission, commented, "I think the system accommodates the inmates and their needs as well as the people of Arkansas, what its' needs in terms of trying to account for how inmates proceed with matters while they're incarcerated."

Hodges and the rest of the members of the State Claims Commission decided if prisoners, or anyone else who believes the state has lost or damaged their property, will get reimbursed.

After working there for more than 20 years, Hodges admits the grievance process is not perfect. However, he doesn't feel that the number of cases that have reached his commission are excessive.

"It would be certainly I think well less than 5% of the Commission's time is actually dealt with what would might be considered frivolous situations," said Hodges.

Dina Tyler went on to say the Department of Correction does its' best to resolve cases internally.

Tyler elaborated, "The other good thing is the court system is smart. They can look at these suits in the beginning and usually say, uh, I don't think so this one actually is a little frivolous, this one doesn't look too good."

However, more than 100 lawsuits still make it to court. While many of the grievances are frivolous, some complaints prisoners have made to Natural State leaders have changed the Arkansas prison system.

A series of lawsuits against the state eventually merged together and helped the court determine the Arkansas prison system was unconstitutional. In 1970, prisoner lawsuits helped determine the Arkansas Department of Correction was fully unconstitutional, the first time that had happened in the United States. By 1983, the system was constitutional again.

Tyler said, "It went from being fully unconstitutional, because the conditions of confinement were so lacking and so inadequate to where it is today, which is one of very few, fully accredited prison systems in the country."

More than 30 years later, Department of Correction leaders are still fine tuning. Processing prisoner complaint cases still takes days, weeks and in some cases months. Time is spent discussing items ranging from a prisoner refusing to attend education classes to an inmate who doesn't want to cut his fingernails.

"With the fingernails, we were well within our rights to cut his fingernails, because it was a security issue for us. It would be just like having any other kind of weapon," Tyler explained.

Prisoner cases today still change the way inmates live within prison walls and barbed wire fences.

Dina Tyler went on to say, "Case in point. A few years ago, some of the Muslim inmates sued us over the Jello, claiming it contained pork products, and Muslims don't consume pork products. Who would have ever thought that they were right?"

The Jell problem was resolved within the Department of Correction, where there are many levels of hearings and appeals that take place in hopes of solving a problem within the prison system. Those avenues have to be exhausted before an issue can make it to court.

"The fact that we were accredited through the American Correctional Association helps with that process, because they have standards that we have to meet on our grievances procedures, and of course, everything else," added Tyler.

If property complaints aren't resolved, the case is sent to the State Claims Commission. Prior to the 1980s, inmates were filing many frivolous claims alleging their personal property had been lost or destroyed -- irreplaceable pictures were costing taxpayers a price tag of $50 a piece. Members of the claims commission had to award damages, because Department of Correction leaders couldn't prove prisoners didn't have the pictures.

In 1985, entry procedures were overhauled.

"It certainly made a difference though in terms of being able to come before the commission on the Department's behalf saying here's the list of what they had, what they're claiming they lost they didn't have, so how did they get it," explained Norman Hodges, Junior -- Director of the State Claims Commission.

As an ex-officio member, Senator Tim Wooldridge and others who sit on the legislative claims review subcommittee listen to inmate appeals at the state capitol.

Senator Wooldridge explained, "Most recently an Arkansas State trooper in south Arkansas on his way to an emergency situation, crossed the center line and hit a couple on their way back to, I think, Dumas Arkansas, and so while we want to make that family whole, because this person was acting on behalf of the state, it's not an opportunity to enrich individuals."

The Claims Review Subcommittee acts as a watchdog to make sure taxpayer money is being spent wisely.

"Rarely is there a claim made that is confirmed and upheld against the prison system through the Claims Commission, or the Claims Subcommittee, so I think that is a testament that they do very well," Wooldridge went on to say.

Procedures Dina Tyler said will always be examined to make sure they are as efficient as possible.

"I think it's going real well, but we still fine tune it. We still tweak it," said Tyler.