It’s often said that America is a uniquely litigious society, a place where “see you in court” has almost replaced “goodbye” as a casual farewell. We’re so into litigation and courtroom appearances that the highest-rated daytime television show until 2020 was Judge Judy—and Judy herself was the highest paid television host in the world.
That enthusiasm for the courtroom extends to what may seem like an unlikely place: Prison. Prisoners file a lot of lawsuits. That shouldn’t be too surprising: As The New York Times tells us, prisons are not only required to provide inmates with access to legal materials and postage so they can mail in court filings and other forms, prisoners can claim poverty and waive almost all the fees associated with litigation. Plus, prisoners have a lot of time on their hands. That means small, sometimes absurd situations can result in a lawsuit filed by a prisoner—after all, when you’ve had your freedom stripped away even small irritations can take on epic proportions in your life.
Not all prisoner lawsuits are petty or weird—the reason you can have a public defender appointed if you can’t afford a lawyer is because a prisoner namedClarence Earl Gideon hand-wrote a lawsuit in pencil from his prison cell—but some of them certainly are. Here are some of the weirdest reasons inmates have sued prisons.
A soggy sandwich and a broken cookie
Some prisoners make a hobby out of filing lawsuits once they realize how easy it is. You can easily imagine that it might be the one way they can exert some control over their lives, or that they might see harassing their jailors to be a fine way to spend their time. A guy named Lawrence Bittaker certainly leaned into the lawsuit business with a vengeance.
The New York Daily News reports that Bittaker was one half of the infamous “Toolbox Killers,” a pair of monsters who roamed in a specially-outfitted van and killed women using common household tools. Bittaker spent decades on death row fighting his death sentence, and passed the time by making greeting cards—no, really—and suing everyone he could think of. In fact, after filing more than 40 frivolous lawsuits, the Los Angeles Times tells us he was declared a “vexatious litigant” by a judge and banned from filing any more lawsuits without a court’s permission.
SFGate reports that Bittaker’s most famously weird lawsuit involved two very unexpected complaints: A soggy sandwich and a broken cookie—according to The New York Daily News, his specific complaint was that the prison cafeteria was engaged in “cruelty” by serving him crushed and damp sandwiches and broken treats. The case did not receive a warm welcome in the courts.
A bad haircut
Sometimes weird or apparently silly lawsuits from prisoners can actually hide a strategic approach to more serious issues. Prisoners have plenty of time to read up on the law while serving their sentences, and some become pretty skilled at finding ways to achieve their goals despite the disadvantage of being in jail and already convicted of some terrible crime.
Consider the example of Joseph Gonzalez, convicted for sexual assault. When SFGate tells us that he sued over a “defective haircut” you’d be tempted to file it away in the “absurd” category of nuisance suits. After all, prisoners should probably consider themselves lucky that they get haircuts at all while serving their time.
Look a little deeper, and a strategy emerges. As attorney Ann H. Mathews notes, Gonzalez claimed lost sleep, chest pains, and headaches as a result of the haircut—because what he was really complaining about was excessive force. Whether or not Gonzalez had a real case or was twisting an encounter with prison officials for his own purposes, he was clearly using the ludicrous “defective haircut” as a vehicle to force prison officials to defend their policies and actions.
Substitute peanut butter
The world is a divided place, with just about everyone divided on at least one important issue. No, nothing political—we’re talking about creamy versus chunky peanut butter. People get pretty passionate about it, which might explain why a prisoner named Kenneth Parker sued over the issue.
As The New York Times tells us, Parker was serving 15 years at the Nevada State Prison in Carson City for robbery when he went to the prison canteen and paid $5 for two jars of chunky peanut butter. The canteen only had one jar of the chunky variety, so they substituted a jar of creamy. Parker sued the prison under the Civil Rights Act of 1871, demanding $5,500 in damages because his rights had been violated and he’d suffered “emotional distress.” The prison offered him an extra jar of chunky-style peanut butter, but Parker refused to settle his case.
Parker explained that to him, this wasn’t a frivolous suit. “It was just the idea of them taking something from me,” he said, adding that if he hadn’t sued, he would have felt like he was giving the prison permission to do whatever it wanted to him. Unfortunately for Parker, he should have taken the free jar of peanut butter: As the City Journal notes, his case was quickly dismissed.
Breach of kidnapper's code
According to Jesse Dimmick, when you kidnap someone against their will there are rules—and one of those rules is that you’re supposed to protect your kidnapper.
As reported by USA Today, Dimmick was fleeing a murder charge in 2009 when he entered Jared and Lindsay Rowley’s house just outside Topeka, Kansas and kidnapped the couple, holding them prisoner. The Rowleys, terrified, fed Dimmick and even watched movies with him in order to keep the situation calm. When Dimmick fell asleep, the couple escaped from their own home and were able to contact the authorities, and Dimmick was arrested. The couple sued Dimmick, and in response he sued them back from prison—for breach of contract.
As The Kansas City Star explains, Dimmick claimed that he told the Rowleys he feared for his life and offered them money in exchange for their help in hiding him from the police. He claimed they agreed, which constituted an oral contract. He asked for $235,000 in damages. The case was dismissed, naturally, and Dimmick was convicted on two counts of kidnapping, plus charged with the original murder, and was sentenced to 10 years and 11 months on the kidnapping charges alone.
A prisoner sued … himself
Sometimes lawsuits filed by prisoners that seem absurd on their face are absurd for a reason—although that reason isn’t always as clever as the prisoner might think. Case in point: Robert Lee Brock, who sued himself.
Brock was serving 23 years for breaking and entering and grand larceny when he hit on an idea that’s either a brilliant get-rich-quick scheme or the dumbest idea you’ll hear all day. As Time explains, he filed suit against himself for “violating my religious beliefs.” Specifically, since Robert Lee Brock chose to get drunk and commit crimes, Robert Lee Brock should make restitution to Robert Lee Brock—to the tune of $5 million.
As noted by the Orlando Sentinel, the brilliance comes in when Brock went on to claim that since he was impoverished and in jail, he couldn’t actually pay the $5 million himself—so the state should pay it on his behalf. Brock piously claimed that once he was released from prison he would of course pay the state back. While the judge in his case was amused and impressed by his ingenuity, calling it an “innovative approach to civil-rights litigation,” the case was dismissed as frivolous—and pretty quickly.
Suing God for breach of contract
We’ve all seen the spectacular scene in The Godfather when Michael Corleone settles all the family business while standing as literal godfather to his niece, promising on her behalf to reject Satan even as his minions carry out several horrific murders on his orders. One prisoner in Romania took the sentiment in that scene very, very seriously.
As noted by The Times, Pavel Mircea was serving a 20-year sentence for murder when he filed a lawsuit in the city of Timisoara alleging that God had committed fraud against him. Specifically, Mircea claimed that his baptism created a contract between himself and God in which the deity had agreed to protect him from Satan’s influence. This lack of protection had led directly to Mircea’s decision to murder someone, and thus God was responsible, though he made one concession to reality by suing the Romanian Orthodox Church as God’s representatives on Earth.
ABC News reports that Mircea’s complaint went on to note that he had never experienced this protection despite many prayers and requests for spiritual assistance. The city court accepted the lawsuit for reasons unknown, but it did not take the judge long to dismiss the case, noting wryly that “God is not subject to law and does not have an address.”
A suit over melted ice cream
While a lawsuit over melted ice cream might seem like the very definition of a nuisance suit at first glance, there were likely larger issues at play when an inmate named Roy Clendinen, serving time in a prison in Syracuse, New York, filed a civil rights lawsuit in 1992 when a guard refused to put his ice cream in a freezer, letting it melt.
As OZY points out, food is often used in prisons as a reward and punishment mechanism. Prisoners can be goaded into certain behaviors with food used as both a lure and a potential punishment. And the acquisition of luxury items like ice cream can be very difficult in prisons, making them more valuable to the prisoners who manage to acquire them, so it’s not crazy to say that the ice cream in question was worth way more to Clendinen than it would be to someone not serving time in prison. So Clendinen’s suit for $1 million, claiming the purposeful ruination of his treat amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, wasn’t as far-fetched as it might seem at first glance, although the ease with which prisoners can file lawsuits like this one certainly played a role. The suit was eventually dismissed, but there’s no word on whether Clendinen ever got his ice cream.
Suing over escape-related injuries
Prison is not a nice place to be—that’s kind of the point. As a result, many prisoners focus their energies on escaping. Sometimes they succeed—and sometimes they fail spectacularly. Scott Gomez Jr. falls into the latter category, but he gets points for trying to turn his failure into an advantage.
As the John Marshall Law Review explains, Gomez was convicted on a weapons charge in 2004, served his time, but violated his parole and wound up back in prison. According to Lowering the Bar, he had escaped from prison at least once before, and when he found himself in the exact same prison cell the second time around it shouldn’t have been shocking when he tried again.
In fact, that was part of Gomez’s argument when he sued the prison after a failed escape attempt involving a homemade candle (used to melt ceiling tiles to gain access to the roof of the prison) and knotted-together bedsheets used as a rope. Gomez fell about 40 feet and suffered numerous injuries, and his lawsuit claimed that the prison failed to take appropriate measures to prevent his escape, especially since he’d done it once before and thus had a known “propensity” for escaping. Since the prison should have also known that injury was very likely if he did make an escape attempt, it was therefore responsible. The outcome of Gomez’s case isn’t known, but we can make a pretty good guess.
The need for a vampire diet
Religion is tricky business sometimes. After all, as BBC News informs us in some areas of the world the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is recognized as a legit religion. So why not vampirism?
That’s what burglar Robert Paul Rice tried to establish when he sued over religious freedom. As Deseret News reports, Rice was serving up to 15 years in prison for a felony weapons charge when he filed his lawsuit. Rice claimed that when he was processed into prison, he’d informed officials that he was a “druid.” More specifically, he was a member of the druidic “order of the Vampire.” Shortly after entering prison, Rice claimed he became a Wiccan, which resulted in a change to his “vampiric dietary needs.” It should be noted that as the Kahane Law Office notes, those “vampiric dietary needs” involved drinking human blood.
When the prison refused to accommodate his dietary requirements—not to mention his request for conjugal visits with a “vampress”—he filed a civil rights lawsuit. His suit was laughed out of court, as the prison noted it supported five specific diets (soft diets for medical conditions, liquid diets, vegetarian diets, Kosher diets, and Muslim diets) and served 11,000 meals every day, making Rice’s requests unreasonable.
A lack of access to pornography
We get it—prison is a terrible place. Aside from the conditions and threats of violence, the whole point is to take away freedoms and privileges as a form of punishment. And there’s a legitimate discussion to be had concerning what freedoms and privileges are essential to the human condition and which ones aren’t, but most people would agree that access to pornography isn’t exactly a fundamental human right.
James Higgason is not most people, however. As WTHR explains, Higgason was serving time for assault and burglary and had been placed in Maximum Control Unit (MCU) in Westville Correctional Facility in Indiana. Higgason sued the prison because he had no access to pornography in the MCU. Higgason and his lawyers argued that he had a basic right to pornographic magazines and other materials in prison, and that lack of such access had caused him “pain, suffering, humiliation, mental anguish, emotional distress, and financial loss.” As The John Marshal Law Review notes, Higgason also sued over the fact that he was not allowed to be naked in his cell. Which makes sense in context, but … yuck.
Higgason’s original lawsuit was dismissed—but he appealed. When he lost that appeal, he re-filed. In fact, he eventually brought 114 lawsuits over access to pornography—one of which named 183 defendants. Every single one was dismissed.
Sued over fiat money
There was a time when the U.S. dollar, along with most other currencies in the world, was backed by precious metals—gold and silver. If you had a dollar bill, technically you could exchange it for a certain amount of gold or silver, and governments had to keep stockpiles of precious metals on hand to back their currency. Since 1971, however, we have what’s known as “fiat money” that isn’t backed by, well, anything aside from our faith in its value.
That didn’t sit well with John Robert Demos Jr., a convicted burglar/sexual assaulter. As the Seattle Times reports, Demos sued because paper money was no longer backed by silver, asserting that this was a violation of his civil rights. In case you’re uncertain if this was a legitimate concern for Demos or not, he’s also sued because he claimed he was personally owed $15 million due to broken Indian treaties dating back to the 1800s, because as a man he suffered reverse sexual discrimination, and because the prison refused to acknowledge a new name he chose for himself.
Demos discovered a real zeal for legal maneuvers—he appealed his various suits to the U.S. Supreme Court no fewer than 32 times, prompting the court to take the extreme step of forcing Demos to actually pay for any future lawsuits. Since filings cost a few hundred bucks and Demos only earned $45 a month as a prisoner, that put an end to his legal career.
Suing over an imaginary brain implant
Of course, some people end up in prison due to undiagnosed or untreated mental conditions, or develop those conditions while serving their time. As noted by The Seattle Times, sometimes that can lead to some less-than-rational lawsuits, like when an inmate named Kevin Howard sued because he was convinced prison authorities were broadcasting his thoughts on the public address system.
As detailed in a congressional hearing before the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security, Howard claimed in his suit that prison officials had illegally implanted a device in his brain that allowed them to control and broadcast his thoughts. While this was clearly the act of a man suffering from a mental disorder, lawsuits can’t simply be ignored just because you think the filer isn’t of sound mind. The prison and state still had to respond to the suit, which involved proving in a court of law that they had never performed any surgical procedures on Howard, and submitting sworn testimony that a device like the one described by Howard wasn’t within their budgetary or technological capabilities. The overall cost of dealing with Howard’s lawsuit was $18,500 of the taxpayer’s money.
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