Civil and Human Rights

At War Inside the Walls: The Ugly Truth About the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA)

By Diane E. Schindelwig

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 exhaustion of administrative remedies (the prison’s grievance system). The PLRA ended the filing of all federal 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 on “cruel and unusual punishment” and the Fourteenth Amendment’s, “equal protection and due process under law.” What this unconstitutional law has accomplished is that it has given prisons and their staff an unrestrained open-hand to commit unlawful acts and enforce unacceptable 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 yourself 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 to ease the overcrowded courts from falsified lawsuits filed by prisoners. The cases used as example to frighten and cause panic were not told in whole, and were misrepresented to cast a dark shadow, to support the National Association of Attorneys General’s (NAAG) 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 kind of peanut butter. Another inmate was said to be suing because the prison did not serve any salad bars or brunch on weekends or holidays, or when a prisoner sued New York because the towels provided were white when he preferred beige ones. The facts of these cases were not completely told in order 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 than transferred to another facility and never received his money back. The case about the towels was not about their color, it was about a prison guard that had confiscated the towels and a jacket that the inmate’s family had sent him and punished him with loss of privileges. The complaint was about the burden put upon his family by the loss of the confiscated items. The family had to work hard, save up for these things, and do without themselves so 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 lack of proper ventilation, overcrowding, lack of food, confinement of contagious diseased prisoners and food contamination by vermin.

There are various restrictions in the PLRA that a prisoner has to meet before being able to bring suit but the “physical injury requirement” provision goes directly against and violates human and constitutional rights. The United States had obligations to protect and to not engage in torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment through signed and ratified human rights treaties. The United States signed a number of human rights treaties; in 1992, the International Covenant on Civil Political Rights (ICCPR), International Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) and the Convention Against Torture (CAT). The United States needs to be in compliance, fulfilling its obligations in regard to these meaningful treaties.

The enactment of the Prison Abuse Remedies Act (PARA) will be a significantly sensible start to correcting the injustice caused by the PLRA. The 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 by 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. In dismissing these cases across the country all types of outrageous treatment inside today’s prisons goes unpunished. Extremely offensive mistreatment such as sexual abuse including rape, absence of, or poor and inadequate medical care, severe mistreatment, like standing naked for ten hours, strip searches of females by male guards, unsanitary, filthy, inhumane living areas or revealing to prisoners that an other prisoner has HIV. The current house bill would remove the absurd 1996 laws’ restrictions that make it almost hopelessly impossible to bring deserving lawsuits against the authorities that permit the abuses; the prisons that have silenced prisoners for far too long, and the prison officials who have not been held accountable. We must show strong support for the PARA to give this legislation the assistance it needs to make a difference, to help right a wrong that has been done to all prisoners in United States of America.

Diane E. Schindelwig #36582-177 is an Inmate Advocate at the Metropolitan Correction Center (MCC), 150 Park Row, New York, NY 10007