Disparate Advocates Tell Congress to Fix Law That Silences Prisoner Abuse

November 8, 2007 12:00 am

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Prison Litigation Reform Act makes it nearly impossible for prisoners to report abuse

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Washington, DC – Conservative activists, academics and prisoners united today to urge members of a House Judiciary Committee subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security to reform the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA). The PLRA, enacted in 1996, was passed to reduce frivolous prisoner lawsuits, but in reality the law has made it nearly impossible for prisoners to report abuse and unconstitutional conditions of confinement in federal court.

Congress is examining potential fixes that could ease some of the worst requirements of the PLRA, including the condition that prisoners suffer “physical injury” in order to obtain compensatory damages. Rape victims, prisoners forced to suffer in cells clogged with human waste and prisoners who had their right to religious freedom violated have had their cases denied because they were not “physically injured.”

Fixes would also address the PLRA requirement that forces prisoners to file a series of grievance forms in order to file a lawsuit, regardless of whether they are mentally ill, illiterate, children or not physically able to complete the forms. In addition, such requirements open prisoners up to retaliation from guards. In some cases, inmates must fill out proper paperwork to file a grievance, but prison officials have taken advantage of the law’s rigid standards by distributing the wrong paperwork or telling inmates the status of their claims only after important deadlines have passed.

Inmates are often required to give their paperwork to the very guards who have abused them, leading to intimidation, more abuse and a culture where prisoners stop filing complaints because the consequences – ultimately making life in prison worse.

“The Prison Litigation Reform Act has had unintended consequences that have let abuse in prison go unnoticed,” said Jody Kent, Public Policy Coordinator of the ACLU’s National Prison Project (NPP). The NPP has worked with today’s witness Garrett Cunningham, who was not awarded damages due to the PLRA despite being raped by a prison guard. “The hoops prisoners are forced to jump through because of draconian PLRA requirements have frequently imposed insurmountable barriers to the courts, so meritorious claims of all kinds are forever barred from being heard.”

Today’s hearing brought together an unusual group of advocates – and some of the strongest – voices urging for reform of the PLRA. David Keene, known more for his role as the head of the American Conservative Union and a veteran advisor in Republican White Houses than as a prisoner advocate, testified based on his firsthand knowledge of the PLRA in another role: as a father. Keene’s son, who has been incarcerated for years, has had his complaints in prison stifled by the stringent requirements of the PLRA. Pat Nolan, a former Republican congressman who served a two-year sentence, now works with a ministry for prisoners. His work to reform the PLRA is based on his own experience.

“There are two kinds of walls in American prisons: one that keeps prisoners from escaping, and another that keeps the abuse that happens inside from ever reaching the light of day,” said ACLU Legislative Counsel Jesselyn McCurdy. “The Prison Litigation Reform Act creates prisons within prisons, except with paperwork instead of locks and administrative hurdles instead of bars. The PLRA gave a blank check to guards and corrections officers, and it’s time for the prison system to pay the piper. We call on Congress to fix the Prison Litigation Reform Act and to truly reform the prison system in the United States.”

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