By Matthew Hendley
By Monica Alonzo
By Monica Alonzo
By Monica Alonzo
By Stephen Lemons
By Jason P. Woodbury
By Dulce Paloma Baltazar Pedraza
By Ray Stern
In that suit, Enger notes that "the whole outside of the cellblock is smitten with an overpopulation of pigeons leaving their droppings to pile up."
The seven-year-old Enger case is still in an early phase of litigation known as discovery.
(Strand agreed that the suit is "certainly a very old case." It has been delayed because the prisoners have no lawyer and are having difficulty developing evidence for their many allegations, the judge said.)
®MDNM¯ Five years ago, Daniel Mitchell sued state prison officials, claiming the guards used excessive force when pushing him out of his cell. The guards claimed Mitchell threw a "liquid substance believed to be urine" at them. Mitchell countered that the liquid was drinking water.
The case has yet to be ruled on by Judge Earl Carroll.
The Mitchell and Howard cases are typical prisoner lawsuits. But allegations of human feces in food and urine in water cups are simply not the sorts of topics federal judges like to deal with.
Woods, whose office must defend the bulk of such suits, has come up with what appear to be creative and fair proposals for stemming the flood of prisoner lawsuits inundating Arizona courts.
The way Woods sees it, prisoners should gripe first in prison, then in the courts. And when they do get to the courts, they should be made to pay court costs, just like everyone else. Woods' idea is not to prevent access to the courts, but to reduce the number of frivolous and malicious suits.
Last year, Woods' office received federal court approval for a state prison grievance system. Before filing a federal lawsuit, a prison inmate must first air his or her grievance in an administrative hearing before prison officials. If the prisoner objects to the way the grievance was settled, he can take his complaint to court.
Prisoner advocates say the grievance system will not cut down on lawsuits because inmates have no confidence in prison officials who administer the grievances.
It's too early to tell if the grievance procedures will reduce frivolous court filings. Albrecht, the assistant attorney general in charge of prisoner litigation, says fully evaluating the new system will take five years.
But the AG's Office claims immediate success with another recent reform: a new state law that forces prisoners who file lawsuits in state courts to pay filing fees. If a prisoner has no money in his prison account, he can still file a lawsuit. But the court can garnish the prisoner's account, so the state gets its money whenever any shows up in the account. (The state court filing fee is $97.25 per case.)
What's more, if a state judge finds a prisoner's lawsuit to be frivolous, the inmate could lose "good-time credits," lengthening his stay in prison.
The law, drafted by the AG's Office and sponsored by Senator Patricia Nolan, was passed last year. Albrecht and Woods say it has reduced state prisoner filings by one-half. But the state law is still an experiment, and it does not apply to federal court, where most prisoner lawsuits are filed.
"If you want to call this politicking, that's fine," says Rob Carey, an assistant attorney general. "But we call it solving a very serious problem."
Judge Carl Muecke does not suffer prisoner whining gladly. He dismisses frivolous lawsuits promptly.
Of all the judges in the Phoenix federal court, Muecke has one of the lowest numbers of pending prisoner cases filed before 1992. There are only six such cases on Muecke's docket.
Two of these prisoner lawsuits are more than 20 years old. They are not frivolous, although they've been painted as frivolous by legislators, the governor and prison officials.
They are the Casey and Hook cases, in which Muecke ruled that state prisoners should have proper mail privileges, mental-health care and access to law libraries.
Muecke's rulings have enraged state corrections director Sam Lewis, the governor and many legislators, all of whom see the judge as siding with prisoners, meddling in the state's business and trying to micromanage the prison system.
Recent public clashes between Muecke and the state have centered on sex magazines and Christmas packages, both of which fall under the domain of the Hook case.
Last year, Muecke refused to let Lewis reduce the allowable weight of inmate Christmas packages from 75 pounds to 25 pounds, because the weight had been determined in an earlier Hook court agreement--an agreement that the state had signed. In a different fight, Muecke cited Lewis for contempt because the director banned sex magazines from the prison, in violation of the same court agreement.
But the Muecke-Lewis fight is not about sex magazines and Christmas tonnage. It is over who has more power--state officials or the federal judiciary.
Conservative state legislators were so enraged by Muecke's rulings that they threatened last session to cut off funds to the Arizona State University Law School legal clinic. The clinic had assisted prisoners in connection with the Casey case at Muecke's request. The law clinic's director, Gary Lowenthal, refused comment, saying he did not want to "stir up" the legislature.