Why It’s Nearly Impossible For Prisoners to Sue

In the next few weeks the Supreme Court will decide a major case on the fate of the 1990’s Prison Litigation Reform Act (P.L.R.A.). Prisoners’ advocates have argued for years that the P.L.R.A. makes it nearly impossible for inmates to get a fair hearing in court, and that it has crippled the federal judiciary’s ability to act as a watchdog over prison conditions. The Act is being challenged by Shaidon Blake, a gang leader convicted of second-degree murder, who was assaulted by two guards in a Baltimore city jail. From the New Yorker article on the case:

 The guards, James Madigan and Michael Ross, had been ordered to move Blake to solitary after a supervising officer complained that he was starting trouble—“commandeering” the television and using the phone out of turn. According to court documents, Madigan and Ross walked Blake from his cell to a nearby corridor, where they pressed him up against a concrete wall. Ross held Blake, whose hands were cuffed, while Madigan punched him in the face five times.

In 2009, Blake filed a lawsuit in federal court against the two guards, plus two supervisors and the state government, seeking damages for his injuries. The assault worsened a preëxisting head injury, his lawyers said, and left Blake suffering from migraines and permanent nerve damage in his face. Madigan, the guard who threw the punches, was found liable and was ordered to pay Blake fifty thousand dollars, but a judge eventually dismissed the case against the supervisors and the government.

The issue in Blake’s case against the second guard, Ross, now before the Supreme Court, is not the role Ross may have played in the assault (Ross has argued that he attempted to deëscalate the situation) but, rather, whether the case should be dismissed because Blake did not file the proper paperwork.

Blake’s Supreme Court case, which is set to be decided in the next few weeks, shows the P.L.R.A.’s effect: at issue is not the role Ross may have played in the assault (Ross has argued that he attempted to deëscalate the situation) but, rather, whether the case should be dismissed because Blake did not file the proper paperwork. As passed, the law requires prisoners who believe their rights have been violated to first submit a grievance form to their prison’s administration, and, if that grievance is rejected, to appeal the decision within their state’s corrections system as high as the process allows. Only after those steps have been taken can prisoners file suit in an actual court. This type of provision is known as an “exhaustion requirement.”

Functioning properly, a grievance system can provide corrections officials with early warnings of staff misconduct, deficient medical care, and unsanitary or dangerous conditions. But in practice, critics say, these systems create a tangle of administrative procedures that discourage or disqualify inmates from filing lawsuits. Before 1996, courts applied an exhaustion requirement only if a state’s grievance process met certain high standards of fairness outlined by the Justice Department. The P.L.R.A. eliminated those standards. There are currently no regulations governing prison grievance processes, and, in the two decades since the law’s passage, many prisons’ procedures have become so onerous and convoluted—“Kafkaesque,” in the words of one federal judge—that inmates whose rights have been violated are watching their cases slip through the cracks.

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