For years, California's prison guards have been frustrated by a growing number of inmate assaults. Now they want their attackers to pay.
Fed up with a prison discipline system they find ineffectual, corrections officers are starting to sue inmates to collect personal damages. The idea is to target any assets the inmates hold outside of prison -- or, in the case of poor inmates, whatever possessions they keep on the inside, such as TVs, hot plates and petty-cash "trust" accounts used to buy snacks.
"One has to remember that it's not about the money, it's about holding these convicted felons accountable for their actions," state corrections Lt. Charles Hughes wrote on the website of an employees group organizing the suits. "It may be small potatoes to you and me, but ask an inmate if he wants you to own his trust account."
As news of the strategy spreads around the state, prisoner advocates are deriding it as excessively cruel. Some attorneys say the suits could entangle the courts in a costly web of hearings, appeals and counterclaims.
"This is incredibly mean-spirited," said John Scott, a San Francisco attorney who represents inmates' families and prison employees in civil matters.
For the legal system, Scott added, "It's a Pandora's box."
The lawsuits come at a tumultuous time for California's prison system, and especially for its corrections officers. Their union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., is under scrutiny for exerting excessive influence on the nation's largest penal system, and in January a federal report concluded that a systemwide "code of silence" existed to protect problem guards.
The union is taking no position on the new strategy, and Corrections Department spokesmen refused to comment on it.
To some critics, however, the idea of going after inmates' petty cash is another example of a system out of control. State Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), who chaired recent hearings on prison reform, wonders if the suits are part of a "publicity blitz" to offset bad press about prison guards.
Although acknowledging that prison guards have a tough job, Romero said filing civil suits against inmates "is a sledgehammer approach. I think there are other ways we can address the issue."
Hughes, an officer at the Lancaster state prison, is executive director of a recently formed employees group, the California Staff Assault Task Force. With a dues-paying roster of more than 2,900 prison workers, the organization already has helped four corrections officers file small-claims lawsuits against inmates in Los Angeles County and plans to file more across the state.
Another group, the California Correctional Crime Victims Coalition, is also planning to bring civil suits against inmates, according to its executive director, Lisa Northam.
Members of Hughes' group say the actions are necessary to restore a balance of power that has tilted toward inmates in recent years. With stricter limits on the use of force, some guards say they feel more vulnerable than 10 or 20 years ago.
Hughes said guards are also frustrated by a system that allows inmates to make frivolous complaints against the staff but often fails to mete out meaningful punishments to prisoners who step out of line.
"The department is failing to protect us," said Hughes, who added that the lawsuits fall well within the officers' rights. "If your neighbor came over and stuck a pitchfork in your gut, what would happen? The D.A. would file charges. But you'd also go after him civilly."
Prosecutors often decline to file charges against inmates who assault guards, considering such cases a waste of tax money, especially when the prisoners are already serving long sentences. Instead, many assault cases are taken up by the prisons' internal justice system. Inmates found guilty can face extended sentences, the loss of good-time credits and assignments to "special housing units" that limit their privileges.
But Task Force members say longer sentences mean nothing to a prisoner with multiple life terms. They also note that prisoners in the special housing units can still enjoy TV and radio, time in the exercise yard and visiting privileges. (The possession of TVs and radios in these areas may soon be banned under a proposed rule change.)
The group's recruiting material cites a dramatic increase in staff assaults in recent years. Total staff assaults rose from 337 in 1980 to 2,795 in 2002, the last year for which the department has figures.
However, the numbers of staff and inmates in the system have also risen. When measured against the prison population over the last two decades, the rate of assaults has fluctuated between one and two staff assaults per year for every 100 inmates.
Officers involved in those statistics say the effect on their lives can be devastating.
Corrections Officer Vincent Herrera, 41, was punched in the face Aug. 3 by inmate George Jacobs, after Herrera tried to enforce the dress code in a Lancaster state prison visitors' room.