By Rob Sharp
The question comes up from time to time from people on the street who aren’t aware of what really goes on in prisons:
Why are prisoners so litigious?
Most often, prison lawsuits are actually conviction and sentencing appeals where some mistake or error was made by the judge, prosecutor, or defense attorney. There are also civil suits, which account for 6 percent of legal actions filed by prisoners. Nevertheless, it is these few that actually make the greatest difference for us.
But prison staff sometimes break the rules under which they operate. When that happens, there arise “prison condition” appeals to right whatever wrongs have occurred. Appeals of disciplinary hearings — which hearings can impact when a prisoner will be released — are a consideration as well. Prison litigation has become so complex that it has developed into a legal specialty all its own.
Conditions in California prisons have greatly improved since 1990; newer prisons have been built and health care has improved significantly due to prisoner-generated appeals and lawsuits. Every human being has a sense of justice in their psyche that cries out to be satisfied — even in us who acted so unjustly toward others in the crimes we committed that required our imprisonment. It is this sense of justice that spurs a few prisoners to put in the work to learn about the law, doing exhaustive legal research, often without guidance or help, and then writing and filing the appeals and lawsuits in order to fix whatever they see as being broken. It is a difficult and thankless task that to some becomes almost a religion.
Think about this: Everyone, to some degree, is affected by an injustice against one person. Left uncorrected, injustice becomes de rigueur practice, then custom, then normal. It is a slippery slope best avoided.
Originally published in the Mule Creek Post.