Apr. 11, 2007 – Prisoners who allege being raped, beaten and otherwise mistreated have for years faced an additional burden: limited access to US courts. Now civil-rights groups are renewing efforts to undo litigation "reform" imposed on the nationâ€™s incarcerated population.
The Stop Abuse and Violence Everywhere (SAVE) Coalition has launched a campaign to reform the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA). Passed in 1996 amid worries about increasing legal claims by inmates, the PLRA purported to block frivolous or legally groundless prisoner lawsuits and keep them from clogging court dockets.
Introducing the Act on the Senate floor in 1995, then-Senator Bob Dole (Râ€“Kansas) asserted, "Frivolous lawsuits filed by prisoners tie up the courts, waste valuable legal resources, and affect the quality of justice enjoyed by law-abiding citizens."
However, in a recent report criticizing the PLRA, the coalition argues that while the law has curbed prisonersâ€™ legal actions, it has also blocked legitimate claims of abuse and indirectly abetted systemic maltreatment.
For instance, the law requires that prisoners demonstrate proof of physical injury in any lawsuit seeking damages for mistreatment, barring claims based on mental or emotional injury alone. Coalition members argue that some courts have read the statute so narrowly as to exclude claims of sexual abuse, or violations of free-speech or religious rights.
In one recent case, the Seventh Circuit Appeals Court ruled that prison staff had violated the First Amendment rights of Illinois inmate Alex Pearson by delaying his transfer out of a maximum-security facility by over a year after he complained about his treatment. Yet the judge, citing the PLRAâ€™s restrictions on claims of rights violations not involving physical injury, affirmed a lower courtâ€™s award of just $1 plus $1.50 in attorneyâ€™s fees.
The SAVE Coalition â€“ comprised of the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch, the Drug Policy Alliance and other advocacy groups â€“ is pushing to loosen the PLRAâ€™s prerequisites for lawsuits. Currently, prisoners must "exhaust" available "administrative remedies" before a case can proceed to court. Critics say that without legal counsel, inmates are often ill-equipped to navigate prison grievance procedures, while administrators can intimidate, misinform or simply ignore prisoners who complain.
The Coalition is also pressing lawmakers to exempt minors from the PLRA, citing a 2005 case, Minix v. Pazera, brought by a boy alleging that staff had deliberately allowed beatings and rape by other inmates at a youth facility. The court rejected the case in part because he had not submitted a grievance at the facility, which required filing within 48 hours of an incident.
Other proposed reforms include eliminating a requirement that prisoners pay full legal filing fees, and amending provisions that limit the power of courts to issue injunctions against prison institutions to address abusive conditions.
"People who have been raped and assaulted in prison have not had their day in court," said Jody Kent, a coordinator of the SAVE Coalition. Though Congress meant to allow only legitimate lawsuits into the countryâ€™s courts, she said, "the PLRA has gone much further than it was intended."