By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Before she became a jailhouse lawyer, Christina Jay Acker preyed on old ladies.
In 1990, Acker was sentenced to 36 years in prison for kidnaping and robbing a 78-year-old Phoenix woman. That same year, a Colorado judge sentenced Acker to life in prison for beating a 72-year-old Colorado woman to death.
Acker, an inmate at the state prison in Perryville, now says she could prove her innocence--if only prison officials allowed her access to the prison law library.
Actually, Christina Acker has already had a great deal of access to the law library.
In the past three years, Acker has filed 24 lawsuits--15 in Maricopa County Superior Court and nine in U.S. District Court in Phoenix. Her complaints are mostly repetitive. She keeps claiming that she's been unconstitutionally detained in prison, or that her constitutional rights have been violated by prison officials.
Acker admits that most of her lawsuits allege the same violations--just "under different time frames." If a case is dismissed, she says, she files another because the judges who've found against her have not addressed "the issues."
Superior Court Judge Cheryl Hendrix couldn't even understand why Acker was suing her keepers.
"After reviewing the file, the court is not sure what kind of cause of action is stated by the plaintiff," the judge wrote in a 1994 Acker case.
In that lawsuit, Acker claimed, among other things, that prison officials had denied her photocopying privileges--an allegation that was contradicted by Acker's own submission of numerous photocopies into the court record.
"Based upon what the court has observed in this file, [Acker] has abused the copying rules, whatever they may be," the judge concluded.
Hendrix instructed Acker to clarify her case or, the judge said, she would dismiss it. Acker voluntarily withdrew the suit.
Then she filed several more.
Acker's voluminous court pleadings are a "morass," says Rick Albrecht, the assistant attorney general in charge of a 15-person unit that defends state corrections officials against hundreds of prisoner lawsuits each year.
Defending prisoner lawsuits is frustrating, Albrecht says, "because all along, we know most of them are frivolous and aren't going to go anywhere."
So why don't judges rule promptly on prisoner cases that they find to be without merit?
The answer is, some do. Others don't. And don't and don't.
Information from numerous interviews with state and federal judges, combined with statistics from both court systems, shows a split: In general, no-nonsense elected state judges--even though burdened with heavier dockets--move prisoner cases along faster than federal judges, who are appointed for life.
As Acker puts it, she "prefers" the federal court to the Superior Court.
Acker has not paid court costs or filing fees in either court. Like most inmates, she claimed indigency and represented herself. "This has cost me nothing, absolutely nothing," Acker says.
The entire cost of Acker's litigation, including her photocopying expenses, has been paid with public funds.
"This is what I would say to Mr. John Public," says Acker: "He deserves paying for what I am doing."
Christina Acker is hardly the sole jailhouse lawyer in Arizona.
Arizona has the sixth-largest prison population per capita in the nation, the Bureau of Justice Statistics says. Arizona prisons now hold 20,756 inmates.
As the prisoner population climbs, so does the number of lawsuits prisoners file in state and federal courts. But not proportionately. In the last five years, Arizona's state inmate count has jumped by 45 percent. But in the Phoenix federal court alone, the number of prisoner filings has increased by 100 percent over that same time frame--from 654 to 1,303.
About one-half of the Phoenix federal court's entire civil docket is taken up by prisoner lawsuits, most of which are eventually dismissed as meritless. This makes Arizona among the top five in the nation for prisoner filings.
If the number of prisoner lawsuits continues to grow at its current pace, in five years, there will be two prisoner cases for every other civil case on the Phoenix federal court dockets.
This very real prisoner-lawsuit problem has given rise to a variety of proposed solutions, most coming from the conservative side of the political spectrum. Some proposals--including a few backed by Governor J. Fife Symington III--are primarily political in nature and would have little effect on the flood of prisoner lawsuits drowning the federal and, to a much lesser degree, the state court systems.
Other Republican proposals, however, provide disincentives to prisoners who file frivolous lawsuits. Several such proposals have been sponsored by Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods.
Woods has pushed for changes in state and federal legislation that would force prisoners to pay some of the legal costs for the lawsuits they file. If a prisoner has a choice between paying the fees to file a frivolous lawsuit or buying a pack of cigarettes at the prison commissary, Woods says, he will probably opt for the smokes.
No one knows for sure whether Woods' solutions--or the more severe proposals coming from the far right--will work.
None has been tested over time. It's simply too soon to tell.
But Woods has reason to know prisoner lawsuits, and how the system works--and fails to work--now.