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Federal Law Shields Jailers From Legitimate Legal Claims
Countless prisoners are being denied justice under a federal statute whose intent was to reduce frivolous law suits, two
prominent legal authorities say.
Law professors Margo Schlanger of Washington University, St. Louis, and Giovanna Shay of Yale indict the federal Prison
Litigation Reform Act(PLRA) of 1996 for “undermining the rule of law in America’s prisons” by “preventing inmates from
raising legitimate claims” against their keepers.
The professors trace the subsequent “dramatic decline” in prisoner law suits to the fact that “constitutionally
meritorious cases are now faced with new and often insurmountable obstacles.”
What’s more, the PLRA “undermines the rule of law,” Schlanger and Shay say, “by shielding corrections officials from
accountability even in situations in which law violations are clear.”
In an article published in the Fall, 2009, issue of The Long Term View, the magazine of the Massachusetts School of Law at Andover, the professors say that PLRA’s provision requiring
prisoners to exhaust internal grievance procedures before filing suit has “drastically shrunk” the number of federal
cases filed from 26 per thousand inmates in 1995 to 11 per thousand inmates in 2005.
Juvenile prisoners, often the targets of molestation and rape, have been affected because so many of them “are not able
to follow the complex requirements imposed by the statute,” the law professors write. Instead, the law holds
incarcerated youth “to an impossibly high standard of self-reliance.”
“Wardens and sheriffs routinely refuse to engage inmate grievances because they commit minor technical errors, such as
using the incorrect form,” Schlanger and Shay write, and “each such misstep by a prisoner bars consideration of even an
otherwise meritorious civil rights action.”
“Juvenile detainees,” they remind, “are young, often undereducated, and have very high rates of psychiatric disorders”
and generally do not have access to law libraries.
The co-authors point to a case in South Bend, Ind., where a young male was repeatedly beaten with “padlock-laden socks”
and raped and subsequently suffered a seizure. Even though the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department
found the South Bend Juvenile Facility “fails to adequately protect the juveniles in its care from harm,” a district
court dismissed the claim of the inmate’s family on grounds the youth had not filed a grievance in the facility. Often,
inmates fear retaliation if they file such grievances.
“PLRA’s exhaustion rule,” Schlanger and Shay continue, “actually provides an incentive to administrators in the state
and federal prison systems and the over 3,000 county and city jail systems to fashion ever higher procedural hurdles in
their grievance processes. After all, the more onerous the grievance rules, the less likely a prison or jail, or staff
members, will have to pay damages or be subjected to an injunction in a subsequent lawsuit.”
The law professors write the PLRA does not allow inmate plaintiffs to recover damages for “mental or emotional injury
suffered while in custody without a prior showing of physical injury.” Result: “Proven violations of prisoners’
religious rights, speech rights, and due process rights have all been held non-compensable, and thus placed largely
beyond the scope of judicial oversight,” the law professors write.
Moreover, some courts have deemed sexual assault does not constitute a “physical injury” within the meaning of the PLRA.
One district court held that not even an allegation of coerced sodomy constituted physical injury.
“In case after case,” Schlanger and Shay write, “courts have held even serious physical symptoms insufficient to allow
the award of damages because of PLRA’s physical injury provision.” They note one case where the inmate plaintiff alleged
a correctional officer severely beat him and dropped him on his head, causing widespread bruises and swelling.
“Nonetheless, the district court held the claim insufficient under the PLRA’s physical injury provision,” the law
professors write. “In another, burns to the plaintiff’s face were deemed insufficient, because those burns had ‘healed
well,’ leaving no lasting effect.”
The point is that PLRA “has made it far more difficult for prisoners to enforce any non-physical rights---including
freedom of religion and freedom of speech---and to seek compensation for any mental rather than physical harm, no matter
how intentionally, even torturously, inflicted,” Schlanger and Shay say. The Massachusetts School of Law at Andover is a
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