Commission Finds Federal Law Denies Prison Rape Victims Access To Courts

June 23, 2009 12:00 am

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New Report Calls For Much Needed Legal Reform And Standards To Curtail Abuse

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WASHINGTON – The bipartisan National Prison Rape Elimination Commission (NPREC) released a report today finding that a law intended to reduce frivolous lawsuits by prisoners denies victims of prison rape and other abuse access to the federal courts. The report proposes national standards to eliminate prison rape and calls on Congress to reform key provisions of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), passed in 1996. In its report, the commission also recommends reduction in prison overcrowding; improved training for prison and jail employees for better detection of sexual assault; improved classification of vulnerable prisoners to protect them from abuse; and better psychological and medical treatment for sexual abuse victims.

“We have a deeply ingrained culture in too many detention facilities of tolerating prison rape,” said Margaret Winter, Associate Director of the ACLU National Prison Project, who presented testimony before the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission and was a member of the NPREC Standards Development Committee. “Every day, vulnerable prisoners are raped, beaten, bought and sold as sex slaves. Prison officials too often avert their eyes or report incidents of coerced sex as consensual. Meanwhile, prisoners pay for protection in sex, money, or services to avoid gang rape and prostitution. We have played a game of willing disbelief long enough. The standards the Commission has issued today are a major milestone in ending this shameful era. The next step is for Congress and Attorney General Eric Holder to fully implement these standards.”

The ACLU welcomes the report findings and proposed standards. For over a decade, the ACLU has opposed key provisions of the existing Act that make it harder for prisoners to file lawsuits about inhumane treatment. For example, the PLRA requires that prisoners exhaust the internal complaint process of their correctional institution before they can file a lawsuit, but the prisons are allowed to apply arbitrary rules that make it impossible for the prisoner to complete the grievance process.

“Federal law has been a major obstacle to confronting prison rape,” said Amy Fettig, Counsel to the ACLU National Prison Project. “The Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996 has barred countless prison rape victims from bringing suits against prison officials. A prisoner can seek protection up and down the chain of command from the correctional officer to the warden without exhausting a prison’s grievance process. The Act gives prisons the right to decide who has access to the courts. By allowing the prisons to determine who can file a civil rights claim, Congress has left prisoners helpless to protect themselves from abuse. We need to restore justice to our prisons.”

Another provision of the Act prohibits prisoner claims unless the prisoner can demonstrate physical injury. Some courts have deemed sexual assault by itself not to constitute an injury for purposes of the PLRA. The ACLU has also been fighting against the application of the PLRA to juvenile prisoners, who are the most at risk of violence.

“The Prison Litigation Reform Act should have never covered child prisoners,” said Jennifer Bellamy, ACLU Legislative Counsel. “Incarcerated youth are the most vulnerable to sexual assault and they do not file lawsuits – frivolous or otherwise. Juveniles simply were never part of the problem that the PLRA was designed to solve.”

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