Jail Cell Lawsuits Drop as
Complaints Considered

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (ANS) -- Missouri's prisoners used to be among the most litigious in the nation, forcing the state to defend more than 1,000 lawsuits at any given time.

Today, even though the state's prison population has risen by more than one-half, inmate lawsuits are down by 69 percent, and Missouri taxpayers have saved more than $2.5 million in court costs, according to state officials.

What happened? The Missouri Corrections Department decided to tap a principle known to the business world but almost unheard of in the prison system: customer service.

Now, three years later, the department's Office of Constituent Services handles many of the prisoner complaints that once landed in court.

"We don't see this as coddling inmates," said department spokesman Tim Kniest, when asked about one likely response to the idea of treating prisoners as customers. "We see it more as an opportunity to help our customers, inmates included, understand what's going on [in the prison system]."

The bottom line is that the state is "keeping cases out of court. We're saving taxpayer dollars," Kniest said, noting that the constituents' office also serves family members of prisoners as well as legislators and advocacy groups.

In recognition of this, the Office of Constituent Services was named in August as one of the 25 best government programs in the United States. The awards are given by Innovations in American Government, a joint project of the Ford Foundation and John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

In 1993, the year before the program started, Missouri ranked fourth nationally in the number of civil rights lawsuits brought by prisoners. Today it ranks 27th, according to corrections public affairs officer John Fougere.

Typical prisoner complaints involve issues such as telephone privileges, family visits, work assignments and medical care. In its new approach, the state has responded by identifying "root causes of legitimate complaints and [taking] those steps that continuously improve the system," said corrections chief Dora B. Shriro.

While preventing costly legal battles, "this program has had a steady impact on enhancing safety and security in Missouri, reducing the probability of inmate unrest and promoting pro-social problem solving by the prisoner population," says an article prepared by Missouri officials for publication this fall in the new journal Corrections Technology and Management.

Posted September 11, 1997
Copyright ©1997 American News Service

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