By Christopher Zoukis
The first inkling clerks in a federal courthouse in Camden, New Jersey had that something might be seriously amiss came in August, when they started getting an unusual number of requests for a packet of legal forms and information prepared for persons wanting to file a pro se civil lawsuits (filed by individuals without the assistance of an attorney).
Within a month, to cope with a strong, ongoing demand, the clerks had to send the packets — usually produced in-house — out to a printer. But the long lines of people waiting to get the packets caused so much congestion in the courthouse hallways that the court clerks began giving them to the guards in the courthouse lobby to pass out to those seeking them.
Then came the lawsuits. Some handwritten, first a trickle and then a flood, seeking money damages for having spent time in the city’s notoriously overcrowded Camden County Correctional Facility. Some complained of having been jailed with three other inmates in a cell designed to house two prisoners; other complained of having had no bed spaces and sleeping on cell floors in rat-infested cellblocks.
And the lawsuits keep coming – as many as 50 in a single day, in a court that averages about 200 civil lawsuits filed per month. Over the span of a few months, around 1,800 filings came in, forcing the court to bring in workers from other district courts to deal with the avalanche of filings. Many of the submissions were invalid, failing to meet either the filing requirements or to state a claim on which the court could grant relief— for example, by failing to meet the two-year deadline for filing garden-variety injury claims, or by alleging harms that could not amount to a constitutional violation.
County officials eventually discovered what generated the tsunami of pro se lawsuits on the county jail’s conditions. Apparently, several people had been working the city’s streets, spreading the news that there was a class-action settlement authorizing cash payouts to anyone who had ever spent time in the overcrowded jail, which had been built to accommodate slightly more than 1,200 inmates but had for long stretches housed 1,800 or more. One account said at least one scammer claimed to have received a cash pay-out of $1,000 per day at the court, and offered to sell potential claimants the legal forms they would need to claim their recovery. Potential claimants likely felt they had a legitimate chance at compensation. There was, in fact, a long-running class action, filed in 2005, by inmates claiming conditions in the Camden jail were so bad as to violate their constitutional rights. But that case neither sought money damages nor had been settled.
In late October, the district judge posted an announcement that there was no class-action settlement or ready payments for the county jail’s ex-inmates, and a similar notice was soon inserted in the pro se form packets. When even those steps failed to stem the tide of claimants, the courthouse got a new notice from the judge denouncing the false rumor for wasting the time of both plaintiffs and court workers.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com.