In January 2008, PLN filed a request with the District of Columbia’s Department of Corrections (DC DOC) seeking copies of records concerning litigation against the DC DOC, including documents related to public funds that had been paid between January 1, 2000 and December 31, 2007 as a result of lawsuits or claims.
Such records included the complaint and verdict sheet, settlement agreement or release “in each case where the District of Columbia Department of Corrections paid more than $1,000.00 in damages, attorney fees or sanctions,” excluding claims “of lost or damaged inmate property and excluding car or vehicle accident-related claims under $5,000.”
The records request was brought under the D.C. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA); however, the D.C. Office of the Attorney General (OAG) only produced a partial list of cases responsive to the request, stating, “[d]ue to the overwhelming volume of documents on which the attached report is based ... we are not in a position to provide you with copies of all the underlying documents you have requested.”
Further, the OAG refused to grant PLN a fee waiver for producing the requested records. PLN had sought a fee waiver under D.C. Code § 2-532(b) because production of the records would be in the public interest, as they would shed light on the operations of the DC DOC and provide the public with a better understanding of how the D.C. prison system is run and managed.
The OAG responded that a fee waiver “was not in the interest of the agency”; however, that misstated the applicable FOIA provision, which says a fee waiver can be granted if it is in the interest of the public – not just the self-serving interest of the agency that receives a FOIA request. The OAG also declined to produce the requested records in electronic format if they were available electronically, although FOIA provides that records can be requested in that format pursuant to D.C. Code § 2-536(b).
PLN Obtains Records After Filing Suit
Due to the refusal of the OAG to provide a fee waiver and produce the requested records in electronic format, PLN filed suit in Superior Court of the District of Columbia on June 25, 2008 with representation by the Partnership for Civil Justice. [See: PLN, May 2010, p.8].
During the course of that litigation the DC DOC produced hundreds of documents responsive to PLN’s FOIA request, including complaints and settlement agreements involving lawsuits filed by both prisoners and prison employees. More than 600 records were produced over a two-year period ending in September 2010.
One of those documents was a 55-page spreadsheet of lawsuits involving the DC DOC that resulted in settlements, from January 2000 to January 2008. After excluding duplicates, habeas petitions, several complaints related to police misconduct and other non-relevant cases, approximately 457 lawsuits filed against D.C. prison officials were settled or resolved during that time period.
Of those cases around 280 resulted in monetary payments, which totaled about $20.8 million. Thus, over the 8-year period examined, the DC DOC had an average of $2.6 million in litigation payouts annually. This is in the context that the DC DOC’s budget averaged approximately $122 million from fiscal year 2002 through 2007; thus, the average litigation payouts constituted over 2% of the DC DOC’s average operating budget – an additional expense paid by D.C. taxpayers.
The vast majority of the lawsuits involving the DC DOC that resulted in settlements were brought by prisoners; only 18 were filed by D.C. employees, who raised claims of wrongful termination, discrimination, sexual harassment and other work-related issues.
Which is interesting because in most jurisdictions litigation by employees constitutes a larger dollar amount of payouts.
Overall, the settlement amounts ranged from a low of $30 to a high of $12 million in a class-action lawsuit described below. Only two other cases resulted in settlements of $1 million or more during the time frame examined.
While most of the records produced by the OAG were necessarily dated, given that PLN’s original records request covered a time period from 2000 to the end of 2007, some of the cases were noteworthy.
For example, several lawsuits involved abuses experienced by school children during tours of the D.C. Jail in the early 2000s. On August 15, 2003, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia approved a $150,000 settlement in a lawsuit filed by Angela Harvin on behalf of her 14-year-o1d son, Joseph Bennett. Joseph participated in a school field trip to the jail, during which he and his classmates were strip-searched; when he refused to comply with orders to remove his underwear, he was forcibly stripped by guards. See: Harvin v. District of Columbia, U.S.D.C. (D. D.C.), Case No. 1:02-cv-00729-JGP.
A similar case involved Reuben Minor, 14, who also was subjected to an unlawful strip-search during a tour of the D.C. Jail. Reuben was first forced to watch guards strip-search a male prisoner; if he refused to watch, the guards told him he would be similarly searched. They then ordered him to strip anyway, and when he refused he was threatened and intimidated into compliance by guards and prisoners. On September 9, 2003, the District agreed to pay $150,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by Reuben’s mother, Michelle Minor. See: Minor v. District of Columbia, U.S.D.C. (D. D.C.), Case No. 1:02-cv-01225-JGP.
Two other lawsuits involving children who were strip-searched during tours of the D.C. Jail settled for $150,000 and $105,000 on October 16, 2003. See: Wagner v. District of Columbia, U.S.D.C. (D. D.C.), Case No. 1:02-cv-00965-JGP and Rice v. District of Columbia, Superior Court of the District of Columbia, Case No. 02-0637, respectively.
Further, between December 2002 and August 2004, the District agreed to settle claims in another lawsuit related to children being improperly treated at the D.C. Jail. According to the complaint in that case, a dozen 13 and 14-year-old girls toured the jail on May 18, 2001. One of the girls was taken to a private room and made to expose her breasts and “pull her pants down, squat and cough.”
All of the children, who were supposed to talk with female prisoners at the jail, were instead locked in a holding area in a unit housing male prisoners. They were left there for about 10 minutes, without supervision, while the prisoners masturbated in open view and screamed at them. The District settled the lawsuit by paying $31,000 to each of eleven plaintiffs plus $54,000 to one plaintiff, for a total of $395,000. Additionally, the court awarded the plaintiffs $100,000 in attorney fees on June 16, 2003. See: Pratt v. District of Columbia, U.S.D.C. (D. D.C.), Case No. 1:01-cv-01525-JMF.
The above cases were particularly egregious because they did not involve juvenile offenders participating in a “scared straight”-type program, but rather involved students who toured the jail as part of field trips from their public schools. Their parents, who gave permission for the tours, were not informed that their children would be subjected to humiliating strip-searches or other abusive treatment. During at least one tour, D.C. jail guards allegedly threatened to have an adult prisoner anally rape students who refused to be strip-searched. The children probably learned more about the reality of the American criminal justice system, and its legal system, from this experience than any amount of book learning could possibly give them.
Other litigation payouts revealed in the records produced by the OAG pursuant to PLN’s FOIA lawsuit were related to violence in the D.C. prison system.
Notably, a complaint filed by D.C. prisoner Jesse L. Sparks described a litany of more than 20 violent incidents at D.C. correctional facilities involving prisoner-on-prisoner attacks, which allegedly resulted due to the DC DOC “operating and maintaining its prison facilities in a hazardous and unsafe condition” with an “inadequate guard-to-inmate ratio.” Despite such incidents, “no significant corrective action was ever taken.” Sparks was attacked by other prisoners and suffered serious injuries, including stab wounds. His case settled for $31,000 on October 2, 2001. See: Sparks v. District of Columbia, Superior Court of the District of Columbia, Case No. 00-8209.
Typical examples of other failure-to-protect cases settled by the DC DOC include lawsuits filed by D.C. prisoners Antonio Avery and Jeremiah Lester. Avery was attacked by two other prisoners at the Central Facility in Lorton, Virginia in 1999, and stabbed in the face. D.C. prisoners were housed at the Lorton facility until 2001. [See: PLN, April 2002, p.20].
Prison officials allegedly had confidential information before the attack that Avery’s assailants had planned to kill him, but did not place him in protective custody. The District settled the case in October 2000 for $5,000. See: Avery v. District of Columbia, Superior Court of the District of Columbia, Case No. 99-8071.
Lester suffered serious injuries after being assaulted by other prisoners at the D.C.’s Youth Center One on May 16, 1999. His right thumb was nearly severed, and he was stabbed in the right arm, right shoulder, left shoulder near his neck, twice in the back and once in the upper shoulder blade. His lawsuit alleged common law negligence for failure to control contraband and the movement of prisoners, lack of staffing, and improper classification of prisoners. The District agreed to settle the case for $6,000 on May 12, 2003. See: Lester v. District of Columbia, Superior Court of the District of Columbia, Case No. 99-5676.
Sometimes the injuries suffered by D.C. prisoners were caused by staff rather than other prisoners. A class-action suit filed in U.S. District Court in 2000 on behalf of D.C. prisoners who were transferred from a prison in Youngstown, Ohio to the Sussex II facility in Virginia alleged that they had been denied food, water, access to toilets and medication, and were subjected to hand and leg restraints that were “intentionally applied” too tightly by DC DOC transport guards.
Such conditions occurred during two transfers from Ohio to Virginia in 1999, one lasting 15 hours and the other lasting 10 hours. According to the complaint, the tight restraints caused “lacerations, pain, swelling, other damage, and lasting residual injury.” Also, due to the denial of food and medication, the prisoners suffered “hunger and thirst, high blood pressure, uncontrolled diabetes, other serious medical conditions that withheld medications were prescribed to alleviate, and the humiliation, discomfort, and stench of having to urinate and defecate in their clothing, or to travel with those who had done so.”
The case eventually settled in June 2008 for $600,000, with 97 class members splitting $300,000 and their attorneys receiving $300,000 in fees. Payments to the individual plaintiffs ranged from $1,721.43 to $8,500. See: Anderson-Bey v. District of Columbia, U.S.D.C. (D. D.C.), Case No. 1:00-cv-02000-RCL.
Other lawsuits settled by the DC DOC concerned more mundane matters, such as accidents. D.C. prisoner Eric T. Thompson received a $18,500 settlement on March 30, 2005 after he filed suit due to an incident in which his fingertip was “partially severed” when a guard closed a cellblock gate. See: Thompson v. District of Columbia, Superior Court of the District of Columbia, Case No. 04-5265.
D.C. prisoner Joseph C. Poindexter was being transferred to the Red Onion State Prison in Virginia on February 5, 2001 when the driver of the transport bus lost control and “veered into the right lane and struck a second vehicle with great force and violence.” Poindexter filed suit, claiming he suffered a back injury and a lump on his forehead; the District settled the case for $4,000 in February 2004. See: Poindexter v. District of Columbia, Superior Court of the District of Columbia, Case No. 02-10504.
The litigation documents produced by the OAG also included records related to cases that PLN had previously re-ported, including the only three lawsuits against the DC DOC during the time period specified in PLN’s FOIA request that had resulted in settlements of $1 million or more.
Those cases included a $12 million settlement in a class-action suit, finalized in January 2006, that involved improper strip-searches at D.C. correctional facilities and holding prisoners an unreasonable amount of time after their release dates. [See: PLN, Oct. 2006, p.29].
Another previously-reported case involved a $1 million settlement in a federal lawsuit over the September 2004 death of quadriplegic prisoner Jonathan Magbie. Other defendants in that case, including Corrections Corporation of America (which operates the D.C. Correctional Treatment Facility), Correctional Health and Policy Studies, Inc. and Greater Southeast Community Hospital, paid settlements totaling $3.6 million. [See: PLN, June 2009, p.30; Feb. 2005, p.27].
Lastly, in August 2005 the District agreed to pay $1.1 million to settle a lawsuit filed by Joseph Heard, a deaf, mute and mentally disabled prisoner who was wrongfully incarcerated in the D.C. Jail for nearly two years after a judge ordered his release. [See: PLN, March 2006, p.24; April 2002, p.4].
PLN Awarded Fees, Costs as Prevailing Party
On December 1, 2011 the Superior Court of the District of Columbia entered an order in PLN’s FOIA lawsuit, awarding attorney fees and costs. The court noted that “the key determination is whether the plaintiff prevailed – in whole or in part – in the instant litigation.” The court found that PLN was a prevailing party because it had established a causal nexus “between bringing this suit and the defendant’s search for and production of responsive records.”
Not that it was easy to obtain those records. “The defendant was so excessively dilatory in the performance of its duties under the D.C. FOIA that the court issued multiple orders to compel delivery of responsive documents by specified dates,” the Superior Court observed. Indeed, it took 3½ years to resolve PLN’s FOIA suit.
Weighing several factors, including the fact that PLN would be able “to synthesize and analyze these documents, and then publish articles in both printed format and online” for the public’s benefit, and the fact that the OAG had “functionally withheld the documents from PLN by its ineffectual and protracted searches for and production of responsive records,” the court awarded $75,000 in attorney fees and $290 in costs.
PLN was ably represented by Carl Messineo, Radhika Miller and Mara Verheyden-Hilliard of the Partnership for Civil Justice and Lance Weber, litigation director of the Human Rights Defense Center. See: PLN v. District of Columbia, Superior Court of the District of Columbia, Case No. 2008 CA 0004598.
All of the original lawsuit documents are posted on PLN’s website at www.prisonlegalnews.org and individual cases have been summarized and are available on the website as well.
Additional source: http://cfo.dc.gov
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