Yesterday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released its official report on the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), an act that Congress passed in 1996 in order to combat the so-called “frivolous lawsuits” sometimes filed by prisoners. Unfortunately, as HRW’s report proves, the PLRA not only weeds out frivolous cases — it also weeds out the serious and meritorious cases as well, effectively denying the civil rights of over two million people (PDF).
Most prisoners are denied the right to vote, so the right to sue is often their only civil right. The PLRA places a number of restrictions on this right to sue and almost renders it nonexistent: when a prisoner is raped, abused, or injured, they often receive no recourse. As a result, we believe that many of the PLRA’s provisions need to be amended.
One of the most compelling examples can be found in the case of S.Z., a child who served time at a juvenile detention center. During his incarceration, S.Z. was held down by three of his fellow prisoners and raped by a fourth. His fellow prisoners also repeatedly beat him with socks containing padlocks. The prison officials did nothing to stop the abuse, despite several frantic and worried efforts by S.Z.’s mother, who called prison officials, juvenile courts officers, and even the governor of Indiana to do something about the abuse. S.Z. did not file a formal grievance because he was afraid of retaliation and more abuse.
Unfortunately for S.Z., the court threw out his case (PDF) because he had failed to file a formal grievance within in two business days, despite the fact that he was a minor, and despite the fact that he was very afraid to file charges because he did not want to be raped again. It is unfair and unreasonable for the government to give a boy only 48 hours to file a grievance after he has been raped. Most children do not understand the grievance system to begin with.
Children make mistakes; minors like S.Z. should not be subjected to the same laws and treatments as adults. We heartily agree with HRW’s argument that children under the age of 18 should be removed from the PLRA’s scope. Children like S.Z. deserve to be recognized and compensated for the abuses they have suffered in prison so that other children do not have to face the same fate. We believe that Congress must amend the PLRA as soon as possible.