Inmate grievances from slavery to bad shower shoes are heard in Kansas’ court of last resort

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TOPEKA, Kan. -- If you think the state of Kansas owes you money, for whatever reason, there's a “court of last resort."

It's at the Kansas State Capitol.

But get in line. You won't be alone if you're filing a claim with the state, and you won't believe who's in front of you.

There are enough claims to keep lawmakers busy even when they're not in session. Recently, FOX 4 watched as they tackled a full slate, including some "frequent filers."

The setting is Room 218 North--the Kansas State Capitol, and the joint committee on special claims against the state launches into six pages of claims. The committee meets three or four times a year to handle the aggrieved. It might be a tax issue, it might be damages; a non-court, court of last resort currently chaired by Senator Dan Kerschen that hears grievances.

“They have a right to a hearing and we provide them that right," Sen. Kerschen said.

But "they" are more often than not tenants in state housing, better known as inmates in state prisons. On the day FOX 4 visited, as on most, inmates are the only claimants. Everything from lost property to lost time over disciplinary actions is reviewed.

Their claims denied at the prison, inmates reach out one final time to state lawmakers and plead their case via conference call. A state attorney represents corrections.

"We dispute that. There is dangerous contraband and various other charges in his disciplinary record," the attorney said.

Claims often routinely dealt with by a committee, charged with jealously guarding scarce state dollars.

"Oh yes, that's a very important part of it. Because we're not just going to frivolously pass out money," Sen. Kerschen said.

Note that word: “frivolously.”

"We just need to have you confirm that you have appealed these two cases,” the senator said while in session.

"The lady you were just talkin’ to has denied me my legal papers here at the institution because I'm on a hunger strike. I can't answer your question because I don't have my legal papers," inmate Milton Lee replied.

Lee, inmate 74977, might be the poster child.

In and out of prison since 2002 for making threats and assault, and with a long list of prison infractions, Lee knows the claims process well. Since 2003 he's filed 12 times, from slander and libel to involuntary servitude and slavery. The total of the demands: $71.6 million. Each claim was deemed frivolous and subsequently rejected.

Lee isn't alone. Ronald Hailes, inmate 39699, filed 34 claims filed since 1990, totaling more than $305,000. That includes two claims for failure to provide $5 shower shoes, one for $6,000 thousand, a second for $3,000. And the list goes on, inmates who've filed multiple claims, most quickly rejected.

Senator David Haley, who sparred with inmate Lee over his recent $7.5 million dollar claims, has seen enough.

"I don't think the State of Kansas is going to pay a million dollars for involuntary servitude to someone who's been tried and convicted of a crime,” Sen. Haley said.

“It's not, but it's spending a lot of time and tax dollars dealing with this kind of thing. Is that a good use of tax dollars?” FOX 4’s John Holt asked.

“Well I don't think so. I wouldn't think it would be," Sen. Haley replied.

Neither does Kristen Czugala she's the Kansas City, Kansas Police Department's victim advocate who thinks "frivolous filer" crime victims would be outraged.

"At the very least offended, that all this time and effort and money is being spent on these kinds of claims, when those kinds of claims feel like he's trying to make himself the victim," she said.

No question some claims are legitimate, in 2013 the committee approved about $500 in prisoner claims. But in a bi-partisan spirit, both the Republican committee chair and Democrat member believe the frequent filer must be curbed, perhaps with limits on numbers of claims, or even a screening process.

"Before we squander taxpayers’ time sitting in a committee to debate how much a pair of shower shoes should go for," Sen. Haley said.

Missouri's solution, claims are dealt with at the prison level or in some cases with the help of a citizens advisory committee appointed by the governor.

As for Kansas costs, they take a small bite out of the state's budget, about $10,000 a year plus the correction's attorney's salary. But it all adds up and Senator Haley and others argue it's a matter of fiscal and moral principal to reign in abuses.

FOX 4 wanted to ask the inmates we featured themselves about their claims, they did not respond to our e-mails.