Last week, the federal Administrative Office of the Courts released their 2014 case statistics, showing how many lawsuits had been filed in different categories over the past year in district courts. Overall, civil filings increased 4 percent, to 295,310. But one docket was off the charts: The one covering prison conditions, which increased a whopping 29.2 percent, to 13,045 cases.
What’s going on? Have our prisons gotten that much worse in just one year? The caseload had risen a little in recent years, going from 8,107 in fiscal year 2010 to 10,098 in 2013, but never that kind of jump.
Few people watch prison conditions lawsuits closer than the staff of the National Prisons Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. When told of the big increase, they thought it might be coming from the 2011 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Plata, which ruled that population limits were necessary to preserve prisoners’ Eighth Amendment rights. That, in combination with insanely high prison loads, might be driving an increase in the number of lawsuits.
“We're seeing conditions in many jurisdictions go from bad to intolerable as systems are reaching breaking points in population and resources, and the deprivations inflicted by privatization of facilities and services, such as health care, increased stress, harm and security problems,” said ACLU attorney Amy Fettig. Increased media attention might be a factor as well, she thinks, which "in turn fuels the quest for justice."
But there was something funny about the statistics. In their breakdown, the Administrative Office noted that the state of Arizona had, on its own, terminated more than 2,600 prison conditions cases — and that most of those had come from a single prisoner.
That prisoner is 63-year-old Dale Maisano, who is serving a 15-year sentence in Florence, Ariz., for aggravated assault. Since 1991, he has filed approximately 6,076 complaints in several courts, against governors, wardens, attorneys general and Corizon Health, which provides health-care services at the prison.
The complaints, which numbered 3,613 in 2014, are mostly over poor food and health issues which Maisano says are not being addressed. In a USA Today story last August, Maisano said he “could use some mental health help.”
Although Maisano might be largely responsible for the apparent spike in prison conditions lawsuits, and even if the Arizona Department of Corrections says it does provide him with adequate food and medical care, Arizona prisons are not known for luxurious accommodation. Last October, the ACLU settled a case on behalf of 33,000 Arizona inmates, after having discovered abuses like excessive use of solitary confinement for mentally ill prisoners and an “extraction only” dental care policy.
Also, even if the number of prison conditions cases were increasing overall without Maisano, they’ve decreased tremendously on a per-prisoner basis since a 1996 law limited court access for prisoners. If the absolute number has gone up, it’s because the prison population has increased even faster, although it finally begun to taper off and decline after 2009.
The next highest number of prison conditions cases was filed in Illinois, which saw 1,647 cases filed in fiscal year 2014.
Steven Rich contributed to this report.