Court Ruling Allows Inmate to Press Abuse Lawsuit in ACLU Challenge to Restriction on Prisoners' Rights

October 6, 2000 12:00 am

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LOS ANGELES–The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California announced success today in its challenge to the retroactive application of a law restricting prisoners lawsuits in a civil rights case brought by an inmate at the notorious Corcoran State Prison.

In Chappell v. Dickerson, the prisoner, Rex Chappell, charged psychological injury and violation of his constitutional rights after he was deliberately placed in danger by a Corcoran prison guard. But the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), which became law in 1997, restricts prisoners from bringing a civil rights lawsuits for psychological injury and allows only cases in which a prisoner can show physical injury.

“Every law passed that limits individuals’ civil rights carries with it a shadow of animus,” said Rocio Cordoba, staff attorney at the ACLU of Southern California, which represented Chappell in his appeal, “and that shadow tends to show up in actions such as the state’s attempt to apply the PLRA retroactively to bar Mr. Chappell’s civil rights case, despite the well-settled rule that laws should not be applied to conduct that took place before they passed.”

The lawsuit alleged that a Corcoran guard locked Chappell in a recreation yard with other inmates. The guard then deprived the other inmates of their usual recreational items and incited the inmates to attack Chappell. Chappell, who has a history of psychological disorders known to the guard, was afraid for his life and asked to be returned to his cell. His request was denied, and he was forced to remain in the recreation yard, afraid and distressed.

The incident took place before the PLRA’S passage. The district court dismissed Chappell’s case, stating that he had failed to show physical injury as required under the PLRA.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed and reversed, noting that the application of the PLRA to Chappell’s claim “creates an impermissible retroactive effect” because it changes the legal consequences of past conduct. As a result, the Court stated in a Memorandum decision that “Chappell made out a pre-PLRA claim for psychological injury under §1983. His complaint should not have been dismissed.”

As a result of the Ninth Circuit’s decision filed on September 28, 2000, Mr. Chappell is now free to pursue his lawsuit.

“Broad curtailments of individual liberties, such as those provided for under the PLRA, inevitably serve to sweep real problems under the rug,” said Cordoba. “We were able to prevent that in this case because the law was not properly applied, but the larger problem remains: The PLRA limitations deprive prisoners of their basic human rights. To suggest that prisoners do not suffer real emotional distress when abused in ways similar to what Mr. Chappell experienced is simply inhumane.”

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