Prison Litigation Reform Act Must be Fixed, Law denies justice to victims

April 22, 2008 12:00 am

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Washington, DC – The House Judiciary’s Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security is scheduled to examine reform of 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.

“PLRA was passed to reduce frivolous lawsuits, not meritorious ones,” said ACLU Legislative Counsel Jesselyn McCurdy. “People who have had their rights violated, including rape victims, have been deprived of having their constitutional claims heard in court,” she said.

The House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security is examining potential fixes that could ease some of the worst requirements of the PLRA, including the condition that prisoners suffer a narrowly defined physical injury in order to get compensatory damages. Sexual assault victims, and prisoners who had their right to religious freedom violated have had their cases denied because they were not “physically injured.”

“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 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.”

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.

McCurdy said, “Congressional action to remedy the unintended consequences of PLRA is especially critical now with 1 in 100 Americans behind bars, ever-shrinking state budgets, and ever-worsening conditions of confinement.” In California’s prisons, for example, a prisoner dies every 6 or 7 days as a result of inadequate medical care. McCurdy added, “America’s criminal justice system is in crisis, and PLRA exacerbates an already bad situation.”

Jody Kent, public policy coordinator of the ACLU’s National Prison Project (NPP) explained that “Prisoners 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 of the consequences – ultimately making life in prison worse.” In some cases 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.

Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Judiciary Chairman Representative John Conyers (D-MI) have introduced HR 4109 Prison Abuse Remedies Act, which would make needed improvements to the PLRA.

For more information on PLRA and for a link to ACLU’s testimony visit /prison/restrict/32803res20071115.html

The ACLU is working as part of a bi-partisan coalition, called the Coalition to Stop Abuse and Violence Everywhere (SAVE), for more information about the SAVE Coalition’s efforts to get the PLRA amended, visit:

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