Today's quiz: A prison inmate in Virginia asks to see a psychiatrist. The staff nurse, he says, laughs at him. Have the inmate's civil rights been violated?
Another state prisoner is prescribed Vitamin B-6, but the prescription mistakenly is filled with an antihistamine. Does the inmate have a valid claim under Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment?
If you said no, go to the head of the law school class.
In fact, it wasn't a prison guard or even a warden who made the final ruling, but federal judges. Both cases were bona fide lawsuits, filed by inmates this year in federal court under provisions of a 19th century civil rights law. And both involved witnesses' testimony, plus legal analysis and written opinions by U.S. District Court judges in Alexandria before they were laid to rest.
Cases like these -- regarded as frivolous, expensive and time-consuming by many judges and prison officials -- are part of a growing logistics problem in Virginia, traditionally at or near the top nationwide in the number of prisoner suits filed annually.
One assistant state attorney general says prisoners' lawsuits in Virginia recently have averaged 1,100 to 1,200 a year. The complaints reportedly can account at times for up to 25 percent of the caseload at the federal appeals court in Richmond.
And with an exploding state prison population expected to cause a 3,000-bed shortage by the 1990s, the number of prisoner complaints will likely spiral upward.
Now, however, the officials who run Virginia's traditionally conservative style of punishment have found a friend in Ronald Reagan's Justice Department. Together, they have come up with an alternative inmate grievance procedure that they hope may slow the flow of jailhouse lawyers' handiwork.
Earlier this month, Virginia's new administrative complaint process became the first in the nation to win Justice Department approval under a recent federal law that allows U.S. trial judges to refer inmate lawsuits back to the state for possible resolution within 90 days.
After that, if the inmate still is unhappy, the complaint can be resubmitted to the federal court system.
"I think it's great," says James Sisk, manager of the state's inmate grievance program and one of several Virginia officials to tout the change. "Corrections people aren't supposed to be bleeding hearts, but we're not great stone faces either."
Watchdogs such as the American Civil Liberties Union have been cautiously slow to criticize the plan. "No one should get all that excited about it, because it came from the Reagan Justice Department," said the Virginia ACLU's executive director, Chan Kendrick. "If Virginia wanted to abolish grievances altogether, they could get that approved, too."
Still, Kendrick says his organization's position is wait-and-see.
Not all prisoner complaints, of course, are frivolous. The ACLU is involved now in two major lawsuits -- they protest conditions at the state's maximum security prison at Mecklenburg and at the Virginia Penitentiary in Richmond--that started with inmates representing themselves without outside legal help.
And, Kendrick notes, a Florida inmate named Clarence Earl Gideon set a legal milestone by complaining in 1961 that he had been convicted without a lawyer -- in effect, launching the entire modern system of court-appointed lawyers and public defenders for indigent defendants.
"A lot of suits are filed where an inmate has a small complaint but feels he can't get it heard at the institution, for whatever reason," Virginia's Sisk acknowledges.
State prison officials -- led by corrections chief Raymond Procunier, former head of California's prisons under then-Gov. Reagan -- filed an application for Justice approval in July. The new grievance system was instituted, on a trial basis, on Sept. 15.
Last month, Justice responded with suggestions for more fine-tuning of the program. And on Dec. 14, Attorney General William French Smith granted the state conditional certification, good for one year.
Sisk and other state prisons officials deny that the plan represents a narrowing of prisoner rights.
For one thing, Sisk said, grievance committees set up at institutions around the state now will, for the first time, include inmates as well as staff. Representatives will be drawn from a pool of prisoners selected by the inmates themselves.
For another thing, he added, coordinators will log each prisoner's grievance. "They grievances are going to have to be answered," Sisk said. "A superintendent can't just shuffle it into the trash can, because the inmate himself can mail his appeal to a corrections department regional administrator."
Inmates also will be included on a panel to evaluate at year's end how the system worked -- one of the changes dictated by Justice.
Since the program was installed in September, according to Sisk, prisoner appeals to regional administrators already have dropped between 66 and 70 percent from a year ago.
"Now the inmate knows he's going to get an answer to his grievance " Sisk contends. "A lot of times, that's all he wanted."