The Ugly Truth About the PLRA
By Diane E. Schindelwig Reader Comment
The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) is an anti-prisoner statute signed into law April 26, 1996 by President William Jefferson Clinton. The law was designed to defer frivolous lawsuits filed by the prison population against the prisons that hold them. Prisoners’ access to the court system was cut off, making litigation on acts of abuse and poor prison conditions impossible without required guidelines being met, such as physical injury and the exhaustion of administrative remedies (prison’s grievance system). The PLRA ended the filing of all federal civil lawsuits for mental and emotional injury suffered while in prison.
Prisoners across the country have been grossly excluded from basic constitutional rights held by every American. These rights are guaranteed to the people by the First Amendment right to “petition the Government for redress of grievances,” the Eighth Amendment prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment,” and the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of “equal protection and due process” under law. What this unconstitutional law has accomplished is that it has given prisons and their staffs an unrestrained open-hand to unlawful acts and conditions. The PLRA insulates prisons from credible lawsuits and allows inhumane, brutal, and abusive treatment of prisoners to go unpunished, unseen, unheard, and literally unknown.
At this point you may be asking how did such a cruel and unjust law get passed? The PLRA was marked with secrecy and deception as it was tacked onto a universal benefits bill as a rider. Dirty political tricks have set into motion this biased law that discriminates only against the prison population. The former president, Bill Clinton, was said to have been a constitutional scholar and have robust political principles, yet he signed the PLRA into law as it stands today.
Government right-wingers shocked and scared the American public into thinking this law was desperately needed to protect them and ease the overcrowded courts from falsified lawsuits filed by prisoners. The cases used as examples to frighten and cause panic were not told in whole and were misrepresented to cast a dark shadow, and to support the National Association of Attorneys General’s political views and wants. They wrote that the common type of case was an inmate suing for cruel and unusual punishment caused by receiving the wrong type of peanut butter. Another inmate was said to be suing because the prison did not serve any salad bars or brunches on weekends and holidays. Or when a prisoner sued New York because the towels were white when he preferred beige ones. Facts of these cases were not completely told to hide the actual reason for the complaints. As in the peanut butter case, he was given the wrong product, returned it, and was promised a full refund. He was transferred to another facility and never received his money back. The case about the towels was not about their color, it was that the prison guard confiscated the towels and a jacket the inmate’s family had sent him and punished him with loss of privileges. The complaint was about the burden put on his family by the confiscated items. They had to work hard, save up, and do without things themselves so that they could send those items to the inmate. The salad bar claim was a small part of a twenty-seven page complaint about major prison inadequacies that included the lack of proper ventilation, overcrowding, lack of food, confinement of contagious diseased prisoners, and food contaminated by vermin.
There are various restrictions in the PLRA that a prisoner has to meet before being able to bring a suit, but the “physical injury requirement” provision goes directly against and violates human rights. By signing and ratifying human rights treaties, the United States is obligated to not engage in torture and other cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment or punishment. I am referring to the following human rights treaties: in 1992, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), and the Convention Against Torture (CAT). The U.S. needs to be in compliance and fulfilling our obligations in regard to these meaningful treaties.
The Prison Abuse Remedies Act (PARA) was introduced as a piece of legislation in 2007 by the powerful-minded Representative, Robert Scott, a Democrat from Virginia. The PARA is bravely attempting to amend the worst parts of the PLRA, like eliminating the “physical injury requirement,” administrative remedies exhaustion, and removing juveniles from the restrictive stipulations. The physical injury requirement has caused the courts to disallow numerous lawsuits that claimed mental and emotional harm only. Dismissing these worthy cases across the country has allowed all types of outrageous treatment inside today’s prisons. Such mistreatments include sexual abuse including rape, absence of or poor and inadequate medical care, severe mistreatment including standing naked for ten hours, strip searches of females by male guards, unsanitary, filthy, and inhumane living areas, and revealing to prisoners that another prisoner has HIV. The current House Bill would remove the absurd 1996 law’s restrictions that make it almost hopelessly impossible to bring deserving lawsuits against the abusers, prisons that have silenced prisoners’ voices for far too long, and prison officials who have not been held accountable.