The law books in prison libraries get a lot of use among inmates working on pending cases but they get a workout as well from inmates filing lawsuits.
There are no readily available figures on the number of suits filed by Canadian prisoners. Last year a group of inmates filed a $1.25-million class action after being barred from wearing T-shirts with an upside down maple leaf on Prisoners Justice Day, the Toronto Star reported.
But American courts have been inundated with prisoner lawsuits.
In 1995, inmates in U.S. institutions filed almost 40,000 suits in the federal court system, accounting for almost 20 per cent of the entire federal civil docket, according to a 2003 scholarly article by University of Michigan law professor Margo Schlanger.
A vast number of suits were considered frivolous and less than 15 per cent were successful, prompting the U.S. Congress to pass a controversial law that restricted inmates' access to the civil courts.
But that hasn't stopped murderer Larry Shandola, serving 31 years in a Washington State prison, from suing the wife of the man he killed. He's demanding US$100,000 in damages from Paula Henry, alleging her effort to block his transfer to a prison in his native Canada violated his privacy and caused emotional distress, the Postmedia News reports.
Shandola was convicted of first-degree murder in 2001, more than five years after Robert Henry was gunned down in a Tacoma parking lot in 1995.
Shandola was Henry's former business partner. They had broken over some financial dealings. Henry had also sued Shandola over medical expenses related to a 1993 fist fight. He was killed nine days after winning a summary judgment against Shandola, Postmedia News said.
Shandola escaped arrest for five years as police had few hard leads in the killing. Paula Henry pushed investigators to look at Shandola and raised $50,000 to keep the case from growing cold, Postmedia News said. That led to a break when a shotgun found in some bushes near the murder scene almost three years later was traced to Shandola.
Shandola's been trying for some time to be allowed to serve the rest of his prison sentence in Canada, filing his latest application in 2011, Postmedia News said.
Paula Henry's letter to Washington corrections officials opposing the transfer prompted Shandola's suit.
In his statement of claim, Shandola called the letter "highly offensive," containing "false claims" and “highly objectionable publicity that attributed to him characteristics, conduct and/or beliefs that are false.”
The letter amounted to an "invasion of privacy," claimed Shandola, who wants US$100,000 from Henry, and the same amount from three others who objected to the transfer.
Paula Henry's lawyer, John Ladenburg, called the suit not only frivolous but emotionally stressful to the murder victim's wife.
“[Shandola] had somebody track her down and had papers served on her at her apartment, and she called me that night – terrified and crying – saying that friends were coming over and that she’s moving out right away,” Ladenburg told Postmedia News.
Ladenburg called on Washington state to legislate restrictions on prisoners' ability to file lawsuits similar to the federal rules.
The Tacoma News Tribune, in an editorial, called the suit outrageous, accomplishing exactly what Shandola hoped it would do, "allow him to continue inflicting pain and suffering from behind prison walls."
Even if the suit is thrown out, the Tribune said, Shandola will have succeeded in forcing Henry and the other defendants spend money on lawyers.
The Tribune said it supports legislation that would require inmates to get permission from a judge to file such a suit. Such a step would protect prisoners' rights to due process but also safeguard the people they've victimized.
"When you're stuck behind bars for what could be the rest of your life, this kind of litigation has entertainment value, if nothing else," the Tribune editorialized.