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Attorneys General Seek Restrictions on ‘Frivolous’ Inmate Lawsuits

August 2, 1995

WASHINGTON (AP) _ An inmate who claimed his state-issued underwear was too tight sued 15 officials in Pennsylvania’s prison system.

New York faced a $1 million lawsuit over melted ice cream and a $25,000 claim over a bad haircut, both filed by inmates.

In Maryland, an inmate complained of moldy cheesecake. A prisoner in Missouri wanted butter instead of margarine. And an Indiana inmate sued over the loss of cable television service.

Frivolous lawsuits? That’s what attorneys general from across the nation called them at a news conference Tuesday on Capitol Hill. They want Congress to impose tighter restrictions on prisoners’ civil-rights filings in federal courts, saying the lawsuits cost millions of dollars each year to defend.

``Instead of spending our time catching more criminals, we spend our time deciding whether we fed them enough or we clothed them enough,″ Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore said.

Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. said lawsuits often are viewed by prisoners as a way to tweak the guards or to get a day trip to federal court.

``We are not attempting to close the doors for inmates with legitimate concerns,″ said New York Attorney General Dennis C. Vacco. ``But it’s critically important ... that we don’t allow these inmates greater access to our system than we would provide our law-abiding citizens.″

He said one inmate serving a life sentence already has filed 347 lawsuits.

Officials say inmates often get court filing fees waived by claiming poverty, and they represent themselves or get free counsel.

The National Association of Attorneys General said the number of inmate lawsuits jumped from 2,000 in 1970 to about 33,000 in 1990. Inmates lose in about 95 percent of those cases, the group said.

Under legislation proposed by the association, inmates would have to exhaust administrative remedies and then pay nominal filing fees to have their cases heard.

Jenni Gainsborough of the American Civil Liberties Union’s national prison project denounced the effort by the attorneys general as ``overreaching.″ She said many of the ground-breaking prisoners’ rights cases have grown out of the initiatives of individual prisoners.

Six Democratic and four Republican attorneys general each presented a top 10 list of ``frivolous″ inmate lawsuits against their states.

In addition to the lawsuit over tight underwear, acting Pennsylvania Attorney General Walter Cohen cited a dispute over an inmate’s right to pray loudly at 4 a.m. and a prisoner who thought prison officials were sending transmissions to a microchip surreptitiously implanted in his brain.

Ohio Attorney General Betty Montgomery highlighted disputes over the removal of park benches, a demand for soap on a rope and the tardy delivery of Rolling Stone magazine.

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