WASHINGTON – Stephen Meehan gets paid by the state of Maryland to sue the state of Maryland.
But while Meehan often takes on the state, he also serves a state interest by acting as a check some of the hundreds of lawsuits that state inmates file every year.
“Our job is to serve as a gatekeeper for the court,” said Meehan, the principal counsel for the Prisoner Rights Information System of Maryland Inc. “The court wanted the state of Maryland to pay for an outside firm to make sure that junk cases aren’t coming in.”
Junk or not, there are still plenty of cases coming in.
A Capital News Service survey of federal court records showed that the U.S. courthouses in Baltimore and Greenbelt processed 5,098 civil rights claims from inmates representing themselves between Jan. 1, 1994, and Dec. 8, 2004. That number does not include state court claims.
The federal suits, just over 500 a year, range from grievances against the prison healthcare system to allegations of excessive force, to claims that inmates are in fear of their lives.
Part of the reason for the high number of cases is the fact that the state is required to make legal resources available to inmates. The Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services said 12 state prison facilities have full legal libraries, and inmates in facilities without a library are able to request research materials.
Another reason is the ease with which a suit can be filed.
“To file a lawsuit you don’t need to be a lawyer. You have to file papers that explain what the circumstances are,” said Stephanie Lane-Weber, principal counsel for the attorney general’s correction litigation division,
“The forms for filing lawsuits are readily available,” she said.
Lane-Weber oversees a group of four attorneys that specialize in handling lawsuits filed by prisoners. She estimates that an average of 200 state and federal cases make it to her office every year, after the courts have already thrown out many.
“The federal courts do an excellent job of screening the cases,” she said.
But every case gets looked at, one way or another.
All inmate cases filed with the U.S. District Court in Maryland are reviewed by the staff attorney’s office, three full-time and two part-time attorneys who work for the court.
If a case makes it through to Lane-Weber’s office, her attorneys will try to show that the inmate has no case before it gets to trial. But that requires staff time for fact-finding.
“We do work on all of them,” Lane-Weber said. “This federal district bench prefers that we respond to the lawsuits fully.”
The fact-finding stage can be time-consuming, she said, but if the state is successful it means the prison’s “personnel don’t have to appear in court.”
Meehan and his group, PRISM, will also try to dissuade inmates from filing baseless suits. But his office will press forward on those cases that have merit, taking the case themselves or advising the inmate on how to proceed.
Part of PRISM’s job is to “make sure that the cream rises to the top,” Meehan said, by assisting inmates that have legitimate complaints.
He and his staff are not state employees — PRISM was set up as an independent organization whose only contract is to work with state prison inmates.
PRISM was created in 1996 — the result of a prison lawsuit complaining about legal representation. It was the same year that Congress passed the Prison Litigation Reform Act in an effort to cut down on frivolous litigation without infringing inmates’ constitutional right to go to court.
The federal law requires that inmates must exhaust the administrative complaint process before moving to court. It also requires inmates to pay federal filing fees.
PRISM does not solicit cases. It only gets involved if a prisoner contacts the office and even then, much of its work is done in the background. Meehan and his staff attorneys will advise inmates, write memos for lawsuits and — occasionally — represents a prisoner in court.
But many of PRISM’s clients appear to be representing themselves. Having an inmate file pro se — without formal representation — makes it easier for PRISM attorneys to juggle as many as 50 cases at a time between its small staff.
“If you’re an attorney, once you enter your appearance in the case, you’re in the case. You don’t get out,” Meehan said. “We are ghost writers.”
Lane-Weber said the federal act is credited with helping to reduce prison litigation by 30 percent nationwide. In Maryland, however, the number of civil rights cases has held fairly steady between 1994 and 2004.
Maryland inmate cases in federal court ranged from 593 cases in 1996 to a low of 352 in 2002. In 2004, inmates had filed 346 cases as of early this month.
Because PRISM is rarely entered as counsel for an inmate, it is difficult to distinguish its work from that of inmates who do research and file lawsuits on their own behalf. And Meehan admits that he is not always successful in talking inmates out of filing suit.
“Just because something isn’t done properly doesn’t mean it’s a federal civil rights violation,” he said.
At the same time, he is not shy about encouraging inmates with legitimate complaints to step forward.
“You have to accommodate inmate grievances if you’re going to incarcerate people,” Meehan said. “I don’t care how heinous the crime is. That’s what separates our country from other countries.”
-30- CNS 12-15-04