New law targets inmate lawsuits

June 20, 1997


Staff Writer

An inmate at one of the prisons south of Hagerstown once sued the institution because guards opened a humidor sent to him as a gift, and made the cigars inside go stale, Washington County Circuit Court officials said.

Under a new law that goes into effect on Oct. 1, prisoners won't find it quite so easy to get their day in court.

The law, which was originally proposed by Maryland Attorney General Joseph Curran, is designed to put an end to filing of frivolous lawsuits by inmates.


The law forces inmates to exhaust all administrative remedies and pay at least 25 percent of the court filing fee before filing a suit. It sets up a screening process to weed out meritless suits, and bars suits by inmates who have filed three previous frivolous suits.

If an inmate does win money in a suit, that money will first be used to pay for outstanding child support and court-ordered restitution.

The Maryland Classified Employees Association, which represents many of the state's correctional officers, supported the legislation.

Washington County Circuit Court Administrator Rick Hemphill said the law should help ease the workload for local judges, who must hear criminal cases involving inmates, as well as civil suits filed by them.

Hemphill said the court does not keep a tally of inmate suits filed here, but indicated the number is substantial.

"We have a very large caseload that comes out of the prisons," he said. "Suits filed by the 5,500 inmates do materially affect our caseload."

In the past, inmates who wanted to sue someone could request a waiver of filing fees on the grounds they couldn't afford to pay them. Beginning in October - poor or not - they'll have to pay something up front.

In Washington County Circuit Court, the filing fee is $90.

"Most costs in civil cases are pre-paid," Hemphill said. "In other words, if the average citizen was coming in to file suit, it would cost him $90 up front."

Washington County Circuit Court Administrative Judge Fred C. Wright III said he couldn't comment on what effect the new law will have on local courts.

"Really what the statute does is require that there be payment of court costs by inmates, so as to give them no different status than other people," Wright said. "It's going to be more difficult to have their court costs waived."

He said inmates who petition the court now can have costs waived if they show they don't have enough money in their inmate accounts to pay the $90.

The law will also allow judges to dismiss cases up front if the inmate had three previous cases dismissed as frivolous.

"It's sort of a three strikes and you're out thing," Wright said.

Wright said the following are among the types of cases inmates bring to court here: appeals of inmate grievance commission decisions; claims that they are being illegally detained; claims that the state prison system has incorrectly computed the amount of time they must serve, and civil lawsuits filed against fellow inmates, guards and/or the prison system.

Administrator Hemphill said the local courts at least are spared most prisoner requests for things such as name changes and divorces, because they have to be filed in the county where the inmate was married or lived before being sent to prison.

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