Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Serial Litigators

A recent Associated Press story reported that the state of Wisconsin is spending more than a million dollars a year defending lawsuits filed by prison inmates. The story identified two Waupun prisoners as "serial litigators," responsible for numerous legal actions. A state lawyer was quoted as saying the amount of money that prison lawsuits cost the taxpayer is "obscene."

As with all problems in our prison system, Department of Corrections officials place the blame on prisoners, and the mainstream press follows in lockstep. Not surprisingly, the fault actually lies with those who wield official power.

In 1989, Waupun administrators cut in half the size of the prison library, including the law library. This move reduced both the materials available in the library and the number of inmates allowed to use the library at a given time. Prison officials did this at a time when the prison's population was expanding. As a result, the number of inmate requests to use the library increased while the number of library passes issued each day decreased, creating a large backlog. Since 1989, Waupun prisoners have had to wait at least three weeks, and sometimes as long as nine weeks, to use the library.

Prisoners complained vigorously about this drastic cutback in access to the library. Their complaints were ignored by prison officials, so the prisoners resorted to the only recourse available: they filed a lawsuit in federal court.

In April, the federal district court in Milwaukee ruled that the Waupun library is so inadequate that it violates the prisoners' constitutional rights. This particular lawsuit was intensely litigated for three years. The prisoners were represented by the prestigious law firm Foley & Lardner. Because the prisoners won, the state must now pay the fees of the prisoners' attorneys.

The cost to the state of paying the fees of its own attorneys and the prisoners' attorneys in this case will surely run into the tens of thousands of dollars. Who caused this expense to the state treasury? All the prisoners wanted was access to a library, hardly an unreasonable demand. The burden on the treasury for this litigation is the result of prison officials who act without any regard for the law or the rights of prisoners.

On May 23 approximately 30 Waupun inmates assaulted several guards. The institution has been locked down since then. As of August 2, the date of this writing, the prison library has not been reopened. In response to complaints about denial of access to the library, Waupun officials cite "prison security," their ever-faithful excuse, as the reason for their actions. However, all the inmates involved in the May 23 disturbance are now confined in segregation and many have been transferred to other prisons. The extended closure of the library has no connection whatsoever with prison security needs. It is caused only by Waupun officials' intense desire to deny prisoners access to books and knowledge, much as plantation owners denied slaves the opportunity to read.

Several prisoners have already filed lawsuits challenging the closure of the Waupun library, and many more will surely follow. Thousands of taxpayer dollars will be spent defending the completely illegal and ridiculous actions of Waupun officials.

I've focused on lawsuits concerning the prison library only because they provide a good illustration of lawsuits necessitated by the lawlessness of prison officials. There are a hundred other examples. Waupun inmate Donald Woods was choked to death by prison guards two years ago. Woods' family has filed a lawsuit that will certainly cost taxpayers a large sum. The recent death of Waupun inmate Joseph Griffin, after extreme neglect of his medical needs, will likely result in a similar lawsuit. Last year a jury awarded WCI inmate Oscar McMillan $23,000 for being illegally confined in "the hole" for six months.

Prison officials routinely deny inmates access to public records maintained by the DOC, resulting in numerous lawsuits pursuant to the state's Open Records Law. State Representative Leo Hamilton (D-Chippewa Falls) has referred to the DOC as "the CIA of state government" because of prison officials' extreme secrecy.

In 1980, UW chemistry student Barbara Hoffman was convicted of the cyanide murder of her fiance, who had named her the beneficiary of his life insurance policy. The Hoffman prosecution was widely publicized and is the subject of the book Winter of Frozen Dreams by Karl Harter.

In 1989 I requested a copy of a DOC document pertaining to the Hoffman prosecution. The DOC denied my request, claiming that revealing the nature of Hoffman's criminal offense would threaten prison security.

I filed a legal action to obtain the document. Because the DOC's reason for denying me the document was patently absurd, the court ruled in my favor. The DOC squandered thousands of dollars defending that lawsuit.

Prison officials have since denied my requests for documents relating to the prosecution of Lawrencia Bembenek and Jeffrey Dahmer. I have not filed legal action to obtain those documents, but I could easily do so. If I do, the DOC will spend taxpayer money to hire attorneys to argue that revealing what Bembenek and Dahmer are in prison for will cause untold harm to prison security.

Wisconsin prison officials believe that they should be able to do whatever they wish, state statutes and the U.S. Constitution be damned. And every time they're sued for acting illegally, prison officials spend freely from the public purse hiring lawyers to defend their actions. I agree that vast sums of public money are wasted defending DOC officials from lawsuits initiated by inmates. But the cause of this waste is not a group of overly litigious prisoners. The cause is a cadre of intransigent DOC bureaucrats who firmly believe that the law doesn't apply to them. Source: The Madison Edge

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login