House Introduces Crucial Prison Litigation Reform Legislation

December 16, 2009 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – Congressman Robert Scott (D-VA) introduced landmark legislation today that is aimed at reforming how prisoners can bring lawsuits defending their rights. Congressman Scott’s bill would reform the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) which was originally passed by Congress in 1996 as a way to stem the tide against what were thought to be frivolous lawsuits by prisoners. Since that time, the law has been used repeatedly to deny justice to victims of rape, assault, religious rights violations and other serious abuses. The American Civil Liberties Union has been fighting for necessary reforms to the PLRA on several fronts and lauded the introduction of Congressman Scott’s bill, H.R. 4335, The Prison Abuse Remedies Act of 2009 (PARA).

“The PLRA was passed to curb what were thought to be frivolous lawsuits but it has instead slammed shut the doors of the courthouse to our country’s prisoners who have suffered true and legitimate harm,” said Michael Macleod-Ball, Acting Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “Prisoners can suffer torture, unsanitary conditions and degrading treatment and still not meet the requirements to file a lawsuit under the PLRA. Our nation’s prisoners should not continue to be further shackled when it comes to their legal rights.”

For over a decade, the ACLU has opposed certain provisions of the PLRA that prevent prisoners from bringing lawsuits about inhumane treatment and undermine constitutional protections. For example, the PLRA requires that prisoners exhaust the internal complaint process of their correctional institution before they can file a lawsuit. This requirement may sound simple, but in practice it allows prison officials to apply complex and often arbitrary rules that make it impossible for a prisoner to complete grievance processes, especially if the prisoner is mentally ill, illiterate or a juvenile. In addition, this requirement exposes prisoners to retaliation from guards, especially where prisoners are required to give their paperwork to the very guards who have abused them, leading to intimidation, more abuse and a culture where prisoners fear filing complaints because the consequences of standing up for one’s rights can ultimately make life in prison worse.

“For too long, prisoners have been impeded from seeking redress of their most fundamental constitutional and human rights in federal court,” said Amy Fettig, staff attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project. “It is imperative that the rule of law be returned to U.S. prisons and jails by restoring the ability of federal courts to hold them accountable for violating the Constitution.”

One of the worst requirements of the PLRA mandates that prisoners suffer a narrowly defined physical injury in order to get compensatory damages. Under this provision of the law, some courts have found that victims of sexual assault or prisoners who have had their right to religious freedom violated are denied relief under the law because they were not “physically injured” for purposes of the PLRA.

Application of the PLRA to youth is especially dangerous because children are even more vulnerable than adult prisoners to sexual abuse and other victimization, and many youth either do not know of or do not understand the grievance systems in their facilities, and many more fear retaliation for filing grievances. As a result, the PLRA effectively bars many incarcerated youths, their parents and advocates from being able to address serious problems with their conditions of confinement.

“The PLRA only worsens an already crippled criminal justice system,” said Macleod-Ball. “The new bill is more important than ever with more than one in 100 Americans behind bars, ever-shrinking state budgets and increasingly abusive conditions of confinement. We urge Congress to pass the Prison Abuse Remedies Act as quickly as possible.”

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