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More Prison Guards Fighting Back in Court

Officers are suing inmates who assault them. Critics say it just creates more problems.

March 02, 2004|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles County district attorney's office declined to file assault charges against Jacobs, a member of the School Yard Crips gang who is serving a 30-year sentence for murder at the maximum-security lockup.

Although prison officials sentenced the inmate to more than two years in a special housing unit, Herrera doesn't think that is punishment enough. Herrera has not been back to work since the attack and is suffering from headaches and blackouts -- one of which, he said, caused him to total his pickup truck.

Last month, Herrera sued Jacobs for $5,000, the maximum allowed in small-claims court.

"I'm scarred for life," Herrera said. "I want to make sure he never assaults another inmate, staff -- anybody."

Jacobs was segregated after the attack in an administrative unit, where he allegedly punched another officer, Jason Frey, on Jan. 28.

Last month, Frey, 29, also sued Jacobs for $5,000. A third officer, Isaac Mijares, has also filed a suit against Jacobs over an alleged battery incident in August.

In the fourth case, Sgt. Stanley Kuhn filed a small-claims lawsuit against inmate Luis Gonzalez for an alleged attack in December. He is also seeking $5,000.

All the cases were filed with the help of R. Rex Parris, a Lancaster plaintiffs attorney. Hughes said other lawsuits on behalf of prison staffers in Salinas Valley State Prison, Tehachapi prison and the California Institute for Men in Chino are expected to follow.

The other prison workers group, the California Correctional Crime Victims Coalition, helped three Lancaster guards file a negligence suit against inmates who allegedly attacked them. The guards' attorney, Mark Peacock, declined to say why the suit was withdrawn in November, but one plaintiff, Sgt. Mark Ayala, said he planned to refile with the help of the new Task Force.

The two groups are not especially friendly -- in fact, they are themselves embroiled in a lawsuit. The correctional crime victims' coalition filed suit in Los Angeles Superior Court last week, contending that Task Force leaders engaged in a "secret plan" to steal their membership rolls.

Hughes denied any wrongdoing.

"It you want to know what I think, the purpose of the [Crime Victims' Coalition] is to sue inmates -- now they're suing cops," he said.

Although individual officers may have sued inmates in the past, prison experts say the new efforts mark the first organized attempt by guards to take advantage of a 1982 change in state law making it easier for police and other peace officers to sue people who attack them at work.

Before police and other groups lobbied for the change, the long-held assumption was that the risk of such injuries was understood to be part of public safety jobs, said Dan Zeidman, an El Cajon plaintiffs attorney who represents police in civil suits.

Since the change, Zeidman has represented hundreds of police officers in such lawsuits.

Hughes, however, said civil action against inmates was rare because they are generally considered too poor to sue.

Now, Hughes' task force and the correctional crime victims coalition said they would use members' dues to bankroll lawsuits that would teach errant prisoners a lesson -- no matter what amount of money they have.

Although judgments are expected to be small in most successful cases, critics fear that the Corrections Department will incur some big expenses because of the suits. The department is already groaning under the weight of excessive litigation, and a rash of small civil lawsuits could require extra escorts for inmates forced to make court dates and result in officers taking more time off, said Richard Steffen, staff director for state Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough), who is holding hearings on prison reform with Romero.

The department, he said, "is a litigation machine. This just adds more to that legal burden."

Attorney Scott predicted numerous ways the suits could burden the court system. He said prisoners might enjoy their "field trips" to court -- and they would definitely fight to keep their TVs and trust funds. The courts, he said, could expect complicated appeals, as well as subpoenas that would require dragging doctors, wardens and even more prisoners into court.

Scott also noted that victorious guards might have to turn their winnings over to the state if they had filed for workers' compensation.

Parris, the attorney for the Task Force, disputed that. He also shrugged off criticism that the inmates' actions would tie up the courts.

"The point of this is that there are inmates who conspire to murder guards," he said. "Do you really think we care what kind of defense they raise?"

Gretchen Newby, executive director of the inmate aid group Friends Outside, agreed that guards should have a right to sue their attackers. But she is worried that the suits could harm the inmates' innocent family members. She envisioned situations in which an inmate's spouse loses the family car -- or children lose funds for college.

"But we're dealing with criminals here, and in most cases, they don't tend to have legitimate properties, stock accounts and things like that," she said. "Clearly, this is not going to be a moneymaker."

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