Supreme Court Limits Lawsuits By Prisoners Challenging Cruel and Inhumane Treatment;

June 23, 2006 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — In light of a Supreme Court decision giving a broad interpretation to a Gingrich-era law restricting prisoners’ ability to vindicate their right to be free of torture and other cruel and inhumane treatment, the American Civil Liberties Union today called on Congress to amend the law.

“The Supreme Court applied a law that has recently been censured by both the United Nations Committee Against Torture and the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons,” said Elizabeth Alexander, Director of the ACLU National Prison Project. “This law requires prisoners to file formal grievances against officials in as little as three days after an incident or be forever barred from going to court. Such a restriction does little to curtail ‘frivolous’ prisoner litigation, but rather immunizes prison officials from responsibility for prison rape, denial of basic medical care and other serious wrongs.”

The court’s 6-3 decision yesterday in Woodford v. Ngo gave a broad reading to the so-called “exhaustion requirement” of the Prison Litigation Act of 1996. This provision creates often insurmountable procedural bars to prisoners seeking the assistance of federal courts to enforce their constitutional right to adequate medical and mental health care and not to be subjected to physical torture or other inhumane treatment.

The Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons, whose 20 members included Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, those who run correctional systems and those who litigate on behalf of prisoners, issued a final report earlier this month condemning the statute. The United Nations Committee Against Torture also issued a report earlier in May condemning the Prison Litigation Reform Act for erecting barriers to prisoners obtaining redress for human rights abuses.

“Corrections administrators as well as prisoners’ advocates have condemned the provision the Supreme Court applied today because it bars prisoners from protecting their fundamental civil rights, without regard to the merits of those claims,” said Jesselyn McCurdy, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. “Congress must act to fix this misguided relic of the Gingrich era. We hope that Congress understands that obstacles to addressing mistreatment of prisoners have had such a profound impact in decreasing safety and increasing abuse in America’s prisons and will support changes to the law.”

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