Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Prisoners Can Now Lose More Than Their Lawsuits

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Prisoners Can Now Lose More Than Their Lawsuits

Article excerpt

Ronald K. Crawford, a burglar with a flair for writing legal briefs, dislikes his drab, state-issued prison outfit so much that he made a federal case out of it.

Crawford, 47, prefers to wear silky women's lingerie, makeup and jewelry.

Because officials at the Jefferson City Correctional Center won't allow it, Crawford filed suit in U.S. District Court. He says the ban violated his constitutional rights.

A judge tossed out the suit. Some state officials cite it as an example of the hundreds of "frivolous" inmate lawsuits that cost the state about $1 million a year.

Now the state is poised to fight back.

Gov. Mel Carnahan signed a bill into law Wednesday that penalizes inmates if a judge rules their lawsuits frivolous. The state can delay a parole hearing by two months or raid half of the inmate's prison bank account.

"These penalties will let us hit 'em where it hurts," said Attorney General Jay Nixon.

Joyce Armstrong, executive director of the Amercian Civil Liberties Union chapter in St. Louis, said having a case dismissed should be enough. She was particularly disturbed about the punishments in the new law.

"I don't think prisoners - or anyone - should be punished that way," she said. "Today it's prisoners. Tomorrow it might be personal injury cases. It could be anything."

Eventually, the state expects to reduce such suits by 20 percent, saving $400,000 a year. Last year, Nixon's office handled 1,574 new lawsuits filed by state prisoners.

Nixon has compiled a "Top Ten List of Frivolous Lawsuits." They include No. 7: Limit on Kool-Aid refills is "cruel and unusual punishment." And No. 1: Objecting to no salad bars or brunches on weekends and holidays.

Nixon says only 5 percent of the suits deal with legitimate concerns. But critics of the new law say it will discourage prisoners who have valid complaints. Some lawsuits raise serious health and safety issues in prisons, they say.

State Rep. Greg Canuteson, D-Liberty, pushed the crackdown on frivolous lawsuits through the Legislature last session. It was added as an amendment to a massive crime bill.

"Some of the suits are legitimate and some aren't," Canuteson said. …

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