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Connecticut Takes Cut of Prisoner Judgments and Inheritances

by Matthew T. Clarke

Connecticut has enhanced its use of a state law (C.G.S.A. § 18-85a) that allows it to recover costs of incarceration from prisoners, targeting prisoners who benefit from a ?windfall? such as an inheritance, insurance settlement, legal judgment or lottery payment.

The state began actively enforcing the law in 2001 and a total exceeding $5 million has been collected from prisoners since then, but collections the first few years were inefficient. Sophisticated computer programs that match prisoners? names to legal judgments, lottery winners and inheriting heirs caused collections to soar from $145,000 in 2002 to $1.9 million in 2006.

For example, state prisoner Kevin King, who won a $375,000 judgment against guards who administered a retaliatory beating, paid the state $65,000 in recovery costs. State prisoner Eric Hamm paid $626,000 of his $1.1 million award from a lawsuit against the city of New Haven over his false arrest on murder charges. [Editor?s note: Neither appears to have contested the seizures under the supremacy clause which holds that the state cannot seize judgements from federal litigation. See: Hankins v. Finnel, 964 F. 2d 853 (8th Cir. 1992) and Wright v. Riveland, 219 F.3d 905 (9th Cir. 2000)].

The bill isn?t discharged when a prisoner is released. Former prisoner Mark Strickland won a $250,000 settlement from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport for sexual abuse by a priest that he suffered as a child.
Connecticut cut itself in for $120,000 for his upkeep at the Corrigan-Radowski Correctional Center in Montville and for an additional $12,660 the state had paid to his daughter in public assistance ? leaving a mere $40,000 after attorney fees. Now, instead of being able to afford treatment, a seriously disturbed Strickland lives on the ragged edge of society in Florida.

Costs of incarceration aren?t the only ?benefits? for which the state is seeking reimbursement, and prisoners aren?t the only citizens it is targeting for reimbursement. Welfare recipients, both current and former, are required to repay up to 50% of their benefits. In 2006, $40 million in welfare reimbursements was collected. There is no statute of limitations on the debt; the state routinely places liens on legal awards and inheritances dating back to 1968.

Prisoner advocates are seeking a change in the law, complaining it is wrong to take a prisoner?s damage award for injuries received at the hands of state employees or when the prison system violates the prisoner?s constitutional rights. It can hardly be described as a ?windfall? when, after years of litigation, a prisoner manages to obtain a judgment against guards who beat him, or against prison staff who denied him medical care. That would more properly be termed ?justice.?

A particularly egregious case involved Bryant Wiseman, a paranoid schizophrenic state prisoner who died on Nov. 17, 1999 at the Garner Correctional Institution while guards ?restrained? him. Wiseman?s mother sued and the case went to trial in June 2007. The state had previously announced that it intended to clip $87,000 from any jury award, thus ensuring the grieving mother would pay the state?s costs for incarcerating ? and killing ? her son. The jury returned a defense verdict and Wiseman?s mother, and the state, collected nothing.

?It?s crazy. It makes little sense to permit the recovery of costs of incarceration in these types of cases, where the award from which the costs are sought is the direct result of wrongful conduct by the department and staff,? stated Bridgeport attorney Antonio Ponvert, who represented Wiseman?s mother.

In 2004, Ponvert unsuccessfully lobbied legislators to change the law to exclude civil rights judgments against prison employees because they might otherwise believe there were no consequences for violating prisoners? civil rights.

State Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven, co-chair of the judiciary committee, agreed. ?We don?t want to re-create a disincentive to hold people accountable when they violate your civil rights,? he noted. Hopefully that sentiment will prevail and the law will be amended.

Source: Hartford Courant

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