ODOC prisoners cannot seek compensation if another prisoner steals or damages their property, but they can file a claim if prison officials lose or damage their property during transfers, cell searches or otherwise. Each year, Oregon prisoners file about 1,000 property claims. Prison officials occasionally grant such claims but most are routinely denied, leaving small claims court as the only recourse.
Property claims can be fairly lucrative for prisoners. Take Nathan J. Bennett, for example, who suffered the improper confiscation of 250 pages of pornography. He can buy quite a few Playboys with the $125 he received for his loss. Prisoner Edward Thomas sought $675 for nine family photos that were taken from his cell. “My pictures are priceless and I just want some gratuity for my losses,” he wrote.
When ODOC denied his claim, Thomas went to court and a judge ordered the state to pay him $9.00, or $1 per picture. The state also had to pay him a $100 prevailing party fee, on top of the $700 it spent defending against his claim.
ODOC prisoner Todd A. Ritchey alleged that guards damaged his television set during a March 2009 cell search. Five months later, the state paid him $260 to purchase a new one.
Prisoner Paul M. Moore filed a claim seeking replacement of sunglasses that were taken from his cell. He tried to persuade prison officials to settle his case, noting that he had won two prior property claims.
“I seem to be winning and only costing the state more money,” wrote Moore. ODOC stubbornly refused to bow to the taunt, only to have a judge order them to pay Moore another $215 for the sunglasses. The state spent $3,436 fighting his claim. Those were some expensive sunglasses; ODOC’s commissary sells sunglasses for $4.00.
While many prisoner property claims are settled for token amounts, cases such as those described above led prison officials to seek passage of Senate Bill 77 (2011), which would make it more difficult for prisoners to bring and prevail on claims for lost or damaged property.
ODOC officials told state auditors that prisoners have too much property, because rules limiting their property are rarely enforced. Additionally, ODOC does not use a centralized automated tracking system for prisoner property. Each prison has devised its own system for logging property on handwritten inventory forms, making it difficult to track property when prisoners are transferred from one facility to another.
“Staff members often find themselves e-mailing, calling and faxing property records back and forth among institutions in order to respond” to prisoner complaints about lost or damaged property, according to the audit.
ODOC officials are months behind in implementing changes recommended by the auditors, such as tightening property limits and improving prisoner property tracking. Two years ago, the ODOC tested property tracking software developed by Canadian prison officials, but the program has not yet been fully implemented.
Oregon prisoners will have to work harder to win future property claims, though, because Senate Bill 77 was signed into law on June 7, 2011. The legislation provides, among other provisions, that small claims cases filed against the ODOC must also be served on the Attorney General’s office, and the state has 30 days to respond. Small claims cases may be transferred to circuit court upon the request of the ODOC or the Attorney General’s office. Further, before obtaining a default judgment, prisoners must file a notice of intent to apply for an order of default ten days before such an order is entered. The intent of the law is to make it more onerous for prisoners to file property claims in small claims court.
Of course, if ODOC employees stopped damaging, improperly taking and losing prisoners’ property, that might reduce the number of claims, too.
Sources: Statesman Journal, www.leg.state.or.us
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