ST. LOUIS — FOR inmates behind prison walls, a trip to the courthouse can be the equivalent of a walk in the park. It costs them nothing and breaks the monotony of serving time.
"With law books at their disposal and an abundance of free time, these recreational litigators can be very creative when it comes to constitutional rights,'' says Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon.
As the number of inmate lawsuits escalates, states - and even Congress - are starting to fight back. Missouri is one of seven states that passed legislation to curb "frivolous" inmate lawsuits during the last legislative session. And federal legislation requiring inmates to pay court costs and filing fees was introduced last month in the Senate.
Most inmates claim pauper status to avoid paying filing fees and attorney bills. So they have little disincentive to play on the legal court.
Some inmates have filed hundreds of suits. In Texas, an inmate alleged "cruel and unusual punishment'' because he was served chunky instead of smooth peanut butter. In New York, a prisoner sued for the constitutional right to use beige towels instead of the prison-issue white towels. In Massachusetts, a recaptured prison escapee sued because the state threw out the personal property he left behind.
Although these cases generally cost the plaintiffs nothing, the states carry a heavy burden. The more than 40,000 lawsuits filed by prisoners last year cost the states $81.3 million, according to the National Association of Attorneys General.
Nationwide, the number of inmate suits filed in both federal and state courts is increasing by more than 10 percent a year. In 1970, only 2,000 lawsuits were filed by prisoners. Today, that number is approaching 50,000.
While 95 percent of inmate suits are dismissed before trial, these cases clog courts and overwhelm government attorneys. "These suits waste a huge amount of money, law-enforcement time, and taxpayer resources,'' says Mr. Nixon. "It has become clear to us that prison inmates are suing the courts as an intramural sports activity.''
Under Missouri's new law, inmate suits deemed frivolous by a judge will lead to sanctions. A prisoner's parole hearing can be delayed 60 days, and the Department of Corrections now has the authority to seize half of the inmate's prison bank account.
"This will send notice to the inmates that the courts are not there for your amusement or to be played with,'' says Tim Kniest of the Missouri Department of Corrections. ``If the judge determines that is what you are doing, there will be sanctions for abusing the court's time.''
"We're trying to hit them where it hurts - their time and their money,'' Nixon says of these "frequent filers." But prisoner-rights advocates argue that sanctions are inappropriate even for the most litigious inmates.
Inmates who file suits because they don't like the flavors of jello served should be discouraged, says St. Louis attorney Richard Sindel, who has represented prisoners. "But I question whether this is going to become a license for the attorney general's office to stop inmate suits that point out some real problems with the Department of Corrections,'' he says.
"Obviously people have rights to lawsuits,'' responds Nixon, "and we're not trying to impinge on those legitimate claims. But it's hard to find those legitimate claims when you have literally thousands of frivolous cases.''
So far, sanctions appear to be working in the few states that have implemented them. Arizona's law became effective in 1994 and yielded a 35 percent drop in filings from inmates the first year. "We've already seen a dramatic reduction in active prisoner law suits," says Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods.
Joyce Armstrong, executive director of the St. Louis chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, argues that every American has the right to take a case to court.
But others see a need to level the playing field. "It's time that inmates - like everyone else - be forced to consider and weigh the costs of filing a lawsuit," argues Nevada Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa. "This debate is not about access; it's about abuse of the process."