This testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security, discussed the American Bar Association’s top five suggestions for PLRA reforms. First, the PLRA’s ban on awards of compensatory damages for “mental or emotional injury suffered while in custody without a prior showing of physical injury” has obstructed judicial remediation of religious discrimination, coerced sex, and other constitutional violations typically unaccompanied by physical injury, undermining the regulatory regime that is supposed to prevent such abuses. Second, the PLRA’s provision barring federal lawsuits by inmate plaintiffs who have failed to comply with their prisons’ internal grievance procedures—no matter how onerous, futile, or dangerous such compliance might be for them—obstructs rather than incentivizes constitutional oversight of conditions of confinement. It strongly encourages prison and jail authorities to come up with ever higher procedural hurdles in order to foreclose subsequent litigation. Third, the application of the PLRA’s limitations to juveniles incarcerated in juvenile institutions has rendered those institutions largely immune from judicial oversight, because so many young people are not able to follow the complex requirements imposed by the statute, and compliance by their parents or guardians on their behalf has been deemed legally insufficient. Each of these three problems disrupts accountability and enforcement of constitutional compliance. And finally, a provision of the PLRA that many have read to ban enforceable injunctive settlements unless defendants confess liability for violations of federal law undermines both the availability and effectiveness of court oversight.
This article covers a law suit brought by a group of prisoners at Pelican Bay State Prison in Northwest California. The prisoners described abhorrent conditions. As a result of this trial, a special master was appointed to monitor conditions at Pelican Bay, and develop a remedial plan to address numerous constitutional violations. It was noted that a goal of correctional institutions in the United States is to “degrade and demean the prisoner,” which is “unacceptable in a society founded on respect for the inalienable rights of the people.”
Although there have been previous attempts to improve conditions in the nation’s correctional facilities, results have been difficult to measure. Prison litigation has forced federal courts into intervention of prison living conditions, which has resulted in measurable improvements.
This article describes how Supreme Court rulings and policies like the Prison Litigation Reform Act have impacted how correctional facilities are run, including administrative policies, inmate rights, and prison conditions.
By almost any measure it is clear that, during the 30 years preceding the production of this report, litigation had a dramatic impact on the nation’s jails and prisons. New doctrine has become part of the established legal landscape. The Plantation Model, securely ensconced in southern prisons as late as the 1970s, is now socially unacceptable and has been largely dismantled. Sadistic treatment at the hands of inmate trustees is a thing of the past. Instruments of torture routinely employed in Southern prisons just a few years ago have been relegated to the museums. Inmates can now expect to receive nourishing meals and adequate medical care. Nowadays, basic services and amenities are routinely made available to all prisoners. And although these practices and expectations are at times honored in the breach, officials feel compelled to lie about or acknowledge problems and promise remedies when failures are exposed. It has now become socially unacceptable to acknowledge many practices that just a few short years ago were standard operating procedures or reconciled as regrettable by-products of a challenging task.
In 1995, prison and jail inmates brought about 40,000 new lawsuits in federal court—nearly one-fifth of the federal civil docket. Court records evidence a success rate for inmate plaintiffs under 15%. These statistics highlight two qualities long associated with the inmate docket: its volume and the low rate of plaintiffs’ success. Then, in 1996, Congress enacted the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), which dramatically altered the litigation landscape, restricting inmates’ access to federal court in a variety of ways. This article examines inmate litigation before and after the PLRA. Looking first at the litigation process itself, it brings together prior research, the results of new quantitative analysis of a comprehensive database of federal district court cases, and interviews and other qualitative inquiry. The article canvasses filing trends, subject matter, and settled and litigated outcomes, exploring what is happening in each of these areas and why. Then it uses a variety of analytic tools to uncover and assess the PLRA’s impact. Most obviously, the PLRA has shrunk the number of new federal filings by inmates by over 40%, notwithstanding a large increase in the affected incarcerated population. Simultaneously, the statute seems to be making even constitutionally meritorious cases harder both to bring and to win. Finally, the article looks beyond federal courthouses to the ways litigation affects jail and prison operations. Specifically, it explores agencies’ efforts to respond efficiently to the high-volume, low-probability docket and to reduce their liability exposure, and offers some tentative observations about the PLRA’s likely impact on these efforts. The article suggests in conclusion that use of the PLRA as a model for broader litigation reforms should proceed with enormous caution given the statute’s problematic effects.