The food is bad. The music, too loud. The roof leaks and the place is full of bugs.
It sounds like a post card from a bad vacation.
But it's a sample of the growing number of lawsuits Virginia prisoners are filing over life in the state's prisons. The volume has reached such a level that just handling the complaints has become a major headache for judges and state officials alike, according to a just-published study in the Harvard Law Review.
To critics of the Virginia prisons the lawsuits are an indictment of a system that most state officials acknowledge has been dangerously underfinanced and seriously overcrowded.
Taking advantage of civil rights statutes and favourable court rulings. the Virginia inmates are flooding federal courts with lawsuits-many of them handwritten on mimeographed forms-petitions that can consume up to half the time of some law clerks.
Nowhere is the problem more pronounced than in the court district that covers Richmond, Norfolk and Alexandria. When it comes to inmate lawsuits., "we are the world champs . . . right ahead of the New York Yankees," says court clerk W. Farley Powers.
Virginia's western court distric ranks third in the nation, outranked only the eastern distric and a central Florida district that includes a state penitentiary.
Yet Florida, with 18,000 inmates-more than double Virginia's number has only half the number of inmate civil rights suits that Virginia has. And in Virginia's eastern district, where the total volume of inmate suits shot up 35 percent to 1.166 last year, there is no end in sight. "We get a minimum of 300 pieces of correspondence a month," said Powers, whose office screens the suits for duplication and obvious legal improprieties.
The trend baffles Virginia prison officials. 'It's very hard to tie this to anything," said C. Hoy Steele, the official ombudsman for the state prisons. "Virginia's prisons are in a lot better shape than some prison systems," he insist.
Some critics, however, say the flood of grievances is an indictment of the people are forced to go to the courts because they're not getting any response through [official state] channels," says Caryn Fiscella of the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
"I have to characterize them as frivolous," counters Guy Horsely, an assistant state attorney general who works with the prison system. "Whether they're frivolous or not, 90 percent are eventually dismissed by a federal judge without a hearing."
Not all the complaints are frivolous. Perhaps the most tragic to date was that of Harry Tucker, 43, who won from the state prison system Jan. 5 for what officials conceded was the gross neglect that left Tucker confined to a wheelchair for life.
Tucker was given massive amounts of an antipsychotic drug in 1976 and 1977, then left neglected in a prison hospital bed and allowed to develop maggot-infested bed sores.
Yet, amond the deluge of cases, there are many that have failed to impress the federal bench. Some examples: A deman for silk undershorts because or a skin problem. A pettition for fresh towels three times daily. A convicted athlete seeking the right to run cross-country-beyond the prison walls.
One inmate's petition expressed the fear the he was going to be killed-not by guards or other inmates, but by the eweather. His cellblock had no lightning rod, he said.
Another sought to force prison ofoficials to supply him with his favorite brand of denture cleanser, an argument quickly rejected.
There are many complaints about prison food including one from a prisoner who sent a court a slic of salami as proof. "And we've had a dead mouse and some cockroaches," said court clerk Powers.
One inmate, citing the Declaration of Independence as legal precedent, charged he was being denied the right to oppose the tyranny of prison guards.
Most complaints focus on living conditions in the state's 42 crowded prison facilities, where nearly 8,300 inmates are housed. More than 1,000 other are being held in local jails, waiting to get into a system that just five years ago held only 5,000 prisoners.*tRonald Phillips of the D.C. based National Prison Project says that with a lack of adequate job training or educational programs, most inmates have little to do but sit in their cells all day. "The thing that's happening to a lot of prisoners is they're going bonkers," he said.
An example: Inmate Stephen W. Becker wrote in his brief, "The plaintiff was allowed no books to read. This in itself caused the plaintiff considerable suffering because he had nothing to do to distract him while sitting in his cell 22 hours per day in 100-degree heat with insects as his constant companions."
William Bennett Turner, the San Francisco lawyer who directed the study published in the Harvard Law Review, says Virginia probably is no worse than any other soouthern state when it comes to life behind bars. The difference, he says, is that Virginia has had a brief tradition of unusually effective jailhouse lawyers whose successes have inspired the efforts of inmates.
In 1971, during a landmark suit brought by then-inmate Robert J. Landman, U.S. District Court Judge Robert R. Merhige Jr. ordered sweeping changes in the state prison system, such as an end to physical punishment and bread-and-water diets The ruling brought major changes to Virginia's prisons, and encourage more complaints.
Turner says restrictive practices also prompt the suits. After prison officials censored in 1977 issue of an award winning inmates magazine, preduced at the state pententiary, the editors took their case to court. Although they lost it last week, they got all the way to a federal appeals court.
And a case need not seem drastic to get results. One inmate, charging cruel and unusual punishment, groused that the rock music piped into his cell block was too loud. His complaint, unlike the music, fell on sympathetic ears. The judge ordered the volumn turned down.