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Washington Prisoners Sue DOC for Extortion, Mail Fraud, Criminal Profiteering and Racketeering

Four Washington state prisoners have filed suit against the Department of Corrections (DOC) over DOC's longstanding practice of charging prisoners to ship their own personal property when they are transferred from one institution to another, and doing so under the threat that their property would be destroyed if they failed to pay.

The suit, filed by prisoners Lonnie Burton, Gordon Lobar, James Brigham and Michael Holmberg, alleges that DOC property policy 440.000 violates state law. That law, RCW 72.02.045(3), quite clearly states that "when convicted person are released from the confines of [an] institution on transfer," the superintendent of the sending institution is responsible to deliver "all funds and valuable personal property" to them. Instead, DOC has been requiring its prisoners, since at least 1994, to arrange and pay to ship their own property. DOC policy 440.000 was changed in 1994 apparently in response to numerous claims filed against the state over negligence and damages incurred when prison staff routinely mishandled prisoners'
property upon transfer. DOC's solution was to change its policy to require all property in excess of two small boxes to be shipped via UPS at the expense of the prisoner.

The prisoners have retained two Seattle attorneys, Michael Rasch, a solo practitioner, and Thomas Juhl of Jones & Juhl, LLC, who filed an amended complaint on March 25, 2002. In the amended complaint the plaintiff's charge that DOC employees have profited from their law-breaking practices because prisoners are not always able to pay the monies demanded of them, and then their property is confiscated and sold to consumers at state run thrift stores.

"You can't say you can have property and then say "oops, you lost it because we don't want to pay to ship it," said Rasch. "This is clearly depriving prisoners of property without due process in violation of their constitutional rights," added Rasch.

Rasch was referring to the fact that DOC provides a "property matrix" which specifically spells out what property a prisoner is authorized to possess, and then they turn around and say they're not going to ship it unless the prisoner can afford the shipping costs. "This policy directly conflicts with the plain language of RCW 72.02.045(3)," the suit says.

The suit, filed in Thurston County Superior Court, requests class certification. The court has yet to rule on this request.

The amended complaint alleges several causes of action including violations of civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, willful interference with property rights, false representations of material facts, fraud, extortion and mail fraud. The mail fraud count stems from the fact that DOC actually sends written notices to prisoners demanding that the prisoner pay a specific sum of money within 30 days or have their property donated or destroyed. Since DOC is using the U.S. Mail to commit extortion, they are also guilty of mail fraud, the complaint says.

The suit further alleges that by committing these crimes in such "a widespread nature," the defendants (which include every prison superintendent and DOC Secretary Joseph Lehman) have "directed, organized, supervised and managed a pattern of criminal profiteering activity." Such conduct also constitutes racketeering in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1962, the suit claims.

The plaintiffs have requested an award of damages to be proven at trial, punitive damages, statutory penalties, attorney fees and treble damages under applicable state and federal law. See: Lonnie Burton, et al., v. Joseph Lehman, et al. , No. 01-2-02159-9, Thurston County Superior Court.

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Related legal case

Burton v. Lehman