Obiter Dicta

What, No Room Service? Lawsuits Reveal Some Inmates in Dire Need of a Reality Check


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Illustration by Jeff Dionise

Despite decades of failed inmate lawsuits brought in protest of the inconveniences of incarceration, some residents of various penal systems throughout the U.S. remain a bit unclear on the concept.

Loss of freedom should be a major signal that one’s circumstances have changed, yet the punitive aspect of the whole experience seems lost on a certain percentage of convicts.

Meals are an especial focus for jailhouse lawyers who can’t seem to accept that the mess hall is never going to qualify for a Michelin rating. David J. Northrup, a 34-year-old convicted pedophile, doesn’t like the fact that the Lake Correctional Institution in Clermont, Fla., has replaced much of the meat in its meals with a soy substitute to stay within budget. He claims it has unpleasant side effects and qualifies as “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Northrup, a onetime paralegal according to published reports, has sued the state prison system to stop the use of soy in its meals. His case is in the 2nd Judicial Circuit in Tallahassee under the alias Eric D. Harris.

Prison administrators are obligated to provide nutritious meals at a reasonable cost and have only so much money to work with, which is provided, of course, by taxpayers. And many prison systems try to make accommodations—such as for a prisoner’s religious beliefs—but still it’s not enough for some.

New York inmate Christopher Henry, convicted of first-degree sodomy, was granted regular kosher meals and visits with a rabbi at his temporary home on Rikers Island, but he decided to go for the trifecta and sued for his “right” to be served matzo every day and grape juice once a week. And while he was at it, he threw in a monetary claim of nearly $10 billion for violating his First Amendment right.

U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled against him in August, citing the possibility of “jealousy and resentment among the inmate population,” which could threaten prison security. Not to mention that his next demand would likely be for a daily bagel with a schmear.

A Michigan inmate was looking for something else on the menu, something a little more spicy. Not quite grasping the whole concept of deprivation behind bars, Kyle Richards filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Detroit seeking to be allowed to possess pornography. The convicted bank robber claimed his quality of life just wasn’t the same since his forced relocation.

And what complements a good stash of porn? Video games, apparently, because he wanted those, too.

Even the American Civil Liberties Union wouldn’t back him up. “Prisons have a lot of leeway to regulate the material that comes in and out,” Kary Moss, executive director of the ACLU of Michigan, told the Detroit News.

Richards’ lawsuit was dismissed in August after he couldn’t come up with the filing fee.

Have we, as a society, not made it abundantly clear that imprisonment is intended to be a deterrent? May be not, because much of our popular culture glorifies thuggery and lawlessness, regardless of consequences. We could probably do with a little less Grand Theft Auto and a little more Scared Straight.

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