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State fights back against frivolous prisoner lawsuits

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Bob Segall/13 Investigates

Note: This is the second part in a two-part series. Read Part One.

Last week 13 Investigates showed you how the state is spending millions of your tax dollars to fend off bizarre lawsuits filed by convicted felons. Now we've uncovered more seemingly frivolous lawsuits and how the state is trying to cope.

It's considered a medium-security prison, but don't be fooled. At Westville Correctional Facility, there is a prison inside the prison.

It's called the Maximum Control Unit: a high-security, razor-wrapped collection of concrete and steel that's home to some of the state's most violent and difficult inmates, including James Higgason, a habitual criminal who assaulted a corrections officer while serving time for burglary.

State officials say Higgason has also been assaulting state taxpayers. You might be surprised to find out how he's doing it.

Higgason wants pornographic magazines in his jail cell, and he sued the state to try to get them. His lawsuit says prison officials violated Higgason's constitutional rights when they denied him access to pornography, "causing him pain, suffering, humiliation, mental anguish, emotional distress and financial loss." Higgason claims he has a legal right to porn in prison.

"The law would disagree with that," said Ann Smith Mischler, the Sullivan County magistrate who eventually dismissed Higgason's lawsuit - but not before the attorney general's office fought a long court battle.

"Even though we successfully defended that, he appealed. He lost on appeal. He continued to file the same lawsuit over and over and over again," said Patricia Erdmann, deputy attorney general.

That's not the only lawsuit James Higgason has filed against the state. In fact, the attorney general's office has boxes full of Higgason lawsuits. There are stacks of them - all together, 114 lawsuits filed by just one inmate in the past eight years.

Higgason sued for the right to be naked in his jail cellm and he filed another lawsuit against 153 people including every member of the state legislature.

"It was all based on the fact the legislature and the governor failed to enact a law he was requesting be passed," said Mischler.

Again, Mischler dismissed the case as frivolous, but it still cost taxpayers big. The 45-page lawsuit had to be photocopied 153 times, it had to be sent through certified mail to 153 defendants, and each defendant needed legal representation from the attorney general's office.

All of the costs related to the case fall on the taxpayers, because like many inmates, James Higgason makes no money in prison. When you add up all of the mailing costs, copying costs, filing costs - and all the costs to the attorney general's office - that's thousands of dollars wasted on each frivolous lawsuit.

"Lots of lawsuits, hundreds of lawsuits," said Mischler.

Recently, judges got some help in the form of a new law designed to weed out frivolous cases.

"The inmates refer to it as the three strikes you're out law," said Mischler.

That's because inmates who file three frivolous lawsuits lose access to the courts. Mischler helped write the law, which allows state judges to pre-screen every lawsuit filed from prison. Legitimate cases move forward. Frivolous cases are tossed out.

"There's no question, it's definitely helped out," Mischler said.

Prisoners now file fewer frivolous lawsuits, but 13 Investigates has learned some prisoners are trying to get around the law.

Larriante Sumbry struck out in Indiana courts, but outside Indiana, judges don't know that. Sumbry is now sending his complaints to judges in Arizona, Florida, Washington D.C. and even the Netherlands.

Prisoners can still file frivolous claims within the prison system. At the state prison in Pendleton, Earl Taylor filed 30 tort claims in one day. He wanted a ball point pen and calcium pills and he said other inmates were saying nasty things about him. For grievances like that, he wanted the state to pay him $9 million. He got nothing.

That's what other prisoners get when they file frivolous lawsuits and the state says there's a good reason why.

"You can't always get what you want in prison and that's the way it is," said Erdmann.

Some counties in Indiana are now asking the state to add more courts because judges simply can't keep up with the number of lawsuits being filed by prison inmates.

Many of those lawsuits seem ridiculous, and the biggest losers in all this are the inmates who have legitimate complaints because their lawsuits get mixed in with the frivolous ones.

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