Inmates to file civil suits online
A new computer program connecting the federal court clerk’s office in Baton Rouge with the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola is expected to save taxpayers $50,000 in annual expenses tied to prisoners’ civil lawsuits, officials say.
“Right now, we’re calling it the Prisoner Electronic Filing Project,” Chief Deputy Clerk Donna Gregory said.
Prison inmates file between 33 percent and 35 percent of all civil suits received each year by the clerk for the nine-parish Middle District of Louisiana, Gregory noted.
“It is our hope to expand to the other state (prison) facilities located in the Middle District,” Gregory added. “Those facilities are Dixon Correctional Institute, Elayn Hunt Correctional Center and Louisiana Institute for Women.”
No federal prisons are located in the district, Gregory noted.
In 2011, 865 civil suits were filed with U.S. District Clerk Nick Lorio in Baton Rouge, court records show.
Most of those suits were required to be filed electronically, Lorio and Gregory said. By federal court rules, attorneys must send all their clients’ lawsuits, responses and motions into the court system over the Internet.
But most of the estimated 285 to 302 inmate suits filed in 2011 were handwritten, and all were mailed through the U.S. Postal Service to Lorio’s office.
That meant, Gregory explained, that members of the clerk’s office had to spend time feeding thousands of documents into a scanner. Once the documents were scanned into the federal court’s electronic system, the clerk’s staff had to notify inmates by mail that their filings had been received.
“Government budgets are shrinking,” Gregory noted. “We had to look at cost-containment measures. This is saving us a tremendous amount of time.”
Gregory said the federal Central District of Illinois successfully initiated the nation’s first such inmate-filing system two years ago. She said Baton Rouge is believed to have started the second such prison-to-court electronic filing system.
The clerks for the Western District of Louisiana and Eastern District of Louisiana became interested in the project and joined as participants before it began operation at Angola’s Camp J in January, Gregory added.
The Middle District of Louisiana includes the parishes of East Baton Rouge, West Baton Rouge, East Feliciana, West Feliciana, Iberville, Ascension, Livingston, Pointe Coupee and St. Helena.
The Western District of Louisiana is based in Shreveport with courthouses in Shreveport, Monroe, Lafayette, Alexandria and Lake Charles. It covers the 42 parishes west of the Atchafalaya River not encompassed by the Eastern and Middle districts.
The Eastern District of Louisiana, based in New Orleans, covers Orleans, Jefferson, St. Bernard, St. Tammany, St. Charles, St. John the Baptist, Plaquemines, Lafourche, Terrebonne, Assumption, St. James, Tangipahoa and Washington parishes.
Prison officials at Angola have embraced the new computer system so far, said Pam Laborde, communications director for the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections.
By April, Laborde said, Camp J ceased to be the only camp at the state’s largest penitentiary to make the move to electronic filing of inmate suits. She said the new program now includes “all offenders at Angola who file federal petitions.”
Some inmates had concerns, Laborde noted. She said some inmates were afraid they would not receive official confirmation that their documents had been received and entered into the court system.
But those documents automatically are electronically sent to Lorio in Baton Rouge once they are scanned into a court-dedicated computer at Angola, Laborde explained. She said the filing, in effect, becomes the inmate’s receipt.
Laborde also noted that inmates are not given access to the court computer.
“The (prison) staff scans the documents for them,” Laborde said.
“The project seems to be running smoothly,” Laborde added. “Warden (Burl) Cain and his staff are embracing technology and progress, and they are happy to cooperate with the courts if it saves time and money.”
Lorio said this change and other cost-saving measures enabled him to avoid layoffs this year.
In 2009, Laborde said, Cain and his staff initiated a video-conferencing “pilot involving Louisiana State Penitentiary and some judges in Orleans Parish.” She said that pilot enables inmates to participate by video in some appellate proceedings and child-support hearings that last mere minutes. That saves taxpayers the expense of transporting those prisoners under guard to New Orleans, Laborde added.
“In 2010, we added more state facilities and additional parishes” to the video-conferencing program, Laborde said. “There are 12 parishes participating currently.”