Suits By Inmates Wear Down Jailers Federal Lawsuits By Idaho Prisoners A Growing Phenomenon
A prison inmate who turned state’s evidence claims that riding a bus chained to an angry drug-dealing colleague could have killed him.
So convicted cocaine trafficker Joe Pennazoli wants the state and Kootenai County to pay him $250,000, according to a claim filed last month.
State and county authorities won’t comment on the case, but say it’s part of a growing phenomenon. Idaho’s 3,100 prison inmates are filing more legal claims and lawsuits against their captors.
Federal lawsuits by Idaho prisoners rose from 57 in 1992 to 155 in 1994 and now account for 27 percent of all federal litigation in Idaho, according to court records.
The state is fighting back. Prisoners who lose lawsuits can be charged fees or lose their cigarettes, televisions, books and radios. That threat has become a deterrent and a bargaining chip to help settle cases.
“If they have nothing to lose, why not file?” asked deputy attorney general Stephanie Maulin. “But it has a sobering effect when not filing means they might get to keep that extra blanket.”
Pennazoli’s big scare came in October 1994, when he was to travel from prison in Boise to testify in Kootenai County against fellow cocaine seller Juan Carlos Sanchez Agundis, 22.
He didn’t make his appointment.
The 53-year-old says he was transported in a caged compartment, shackled to Agundis, who “continually repeated ‘10 years’ and made threatening facial gestures” at him, the claim states.
Things went downhill from there.
According to the claim, Pennazoli was put in a holding cell in Orofino next to Agundis and suffered heart problems. He was given the wrong heart medicine, he claims, then isolated in a room with an emergency button that was out of reach.
The circumstances of Pennazoli’s case may be unusual, but his filing of a claim is not.
More than 40 cases have been filed so far in 1995, said Ann Thompson, senior administrator for the Idaho Department of Corrections. Thirteen were filed last week alone.
The cases range from bizarre to tragic. Many fall into what Maulin calls the “I-asked-for-red-jello, butyou-gave-me-green” variety.
A prisoner was angered when guards withheld the special stamps used to fill out his magazine subscription. Inmates sometimes circulate LSD on stamps, so guards offered to apply them for him. Instead, the prisoner sought more than $500,000 in a lawsuit. He lost.
One inmate sued because he said the department was allowing Martians into the prison at night to suck his blood. A judge dismissed the claim immediately.
Three inmates at the Orofino prison demanded the prison give them a satanic Bible, pentagram necklaces, white chalk and a candle made of unbaptized human flesh. When the warden consented to just the necklaces, the case was dropped.
More than half of Idaho inmate cases are dismissed as soon as the state files a response. Fewer than 2 percent actually make it to trial. All take time and money, prison officials say.
“We have three deputy attorneys general who can manage 100 to 110 cases and keep up with the rest of their workload,” Thompson said. Right now they’re handling about 160 active cases. And the Attorney General’s Office has loaned the department a fourth part-time attorney.
But while the state blames the increase on rising inmate populations and the litigious 1990s, representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union said the prison authorities may be getting out of hand.
“Even we’ll admit that prisoners file a lot of frivolous cases,” said Melva Patterson, associate director of Idaho’s ACLU. “But the vast majority involve access to medical care, inadequate access to courts and due process.”
Charging prisoners for the state’s attorneys fees and taking away their belongings when they can’t pay could have an unfair chilling effect, she said.
“These guys in prison are not like you and me,” she said. “It sounds like using that as the big hammer could get out of hand.”
Prison officials have used the deterrent for the past year and argue it’s also used in other states.