Why It’s Nearly Impossible for Prisoners to Sue Prisons
On June 21, 2007, two guards at a jail in Baltimore assaulted an inmate named Shaidon Blake, a gang leader who had been convicted of second-degree murder, earlier that year. 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.
Blake’s case against the second guard, Ross, is now before the Supreme Court. The case, like those of thousands of other inmates each year, hinges on a Clinton-era piece of criminal-justice legislation known as the 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. 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.
The P.L.R.A., passed by Congress in 1996, was designed to reduce the number of lawsuits brought by inmates against prisons. In 1995, Senator Orrin Hatch, a Republican from Utah, argued for the P.L.R.A.’s passage by pointing out that prisoners filed fifteen per cent of all civil cases initiated the previous year in federal court, totalling more than thirty-nine thousand lawsuits, most alleging “cruel and unusual” prison conditions. Hatch promised that the P.L.R.A. would “quickly identify the viable prisoner claims and weed out the meritless chaff.” 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.
Margo Schlanger, a professor of civil-rights law at the University of Michigan, who is widely considered the leading authority on the P.L.R.A., maintains a database of grievance policies from across the country and keeps track of individual cases. She has come across cases in which inmates have had their grievances rejected for writing in red ink, for writing on the back of a form, and for attaching medical records to their submissions. If inmates miss a filing deadline (the shortest, in Michigan, is two business days) or trip over some other procedural hurdle, they have lost their right to relief through both the grievance process and the federal courts. “The preservation of prisoners’ civil rights now depends on their ability to dot ‘i’s and cross ‘t’s,” Schlanger told me recently. “And it turns out they’re not so good at that.”
Around half of all prisoners in the United States have some sort of mental illness, and a similar proportion has only basic literacy skills (at best), but courts have frequently ruled that neither mental illness nor illiteracy excuses an inmate from the exhaustion requirement of the P.L.R.A. Juveniles are not exempt, either. In one case from the early two-thousands, a fifteen-year-old inmate at a juvenile facility, in Indiana, filed a lawsuit alleging that he had been repeatedly raped and beaten by other inmates, who had been egged on by guards. The lawsuit was dismissed, in 2005, because the inmate had not filed a grievance, even though his mother had previously contacted prison officials, and even the governor’s office, in an attempt to stop the abuse of her son.
In Blake’s case, there’s no dispute that, on the day he was assaulted, he filed a request with the prison for an internal investigation. That investigation determined that “excessive force” was used against him. But the Maryland Attorney General’s office, which is representing Ross, has argued that Blake’s case should be dismissed because he did not also file a grievance form through a second, separate administrative channel. “Maryland’s policy is full of trips and traps,” Paul Hughes, Blake’s counsel, told me. In March, when oral arguments were held at the Supreme Court, several Justices wondered about the complexity of Maryland’s grievance system. “If you’re not intending to confuse prisoners, if you’re not intending to make the process totally opaque, why do you do it that way?” Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked Ross’s lawyers.
Schlanger has estimated that the number of federal lawsuits by inmates against prisons has fallen by sixty per cent in the twenty years since the P.L.R.A.’s passage. There is no question, then, that the law has been largely successful in its aim to reduce the burden on courts and corrections departments. Just five months ago, the American Correctional Association, a large industry group, passed a resolution reaffirming its support for the law, and some view the P.L.R.A. as an unmitigated success. Sarah Hart, a former director of the National Institute of Justice and an architect of the P.L.R.A., testified to Congress, in 2008, that the law “has substantially reduced the number of meritless inmate lawsuits” while preserving “the full power of the federal courts to remedy constitutional violations.”
If that were true, Schlanger said, prisoners would be winning a higher percentage of cases than they were before the law’s passage. Instead, they are losing more than ever. “Cases are harder to bring and harder to win,” she told me. Meanwhile, according to researchers at the University of California, Irvine, only two per cent of grievances filed in California between 2005 and 2006 were “granted in full” at the first level of review. “What we find is a system fraught with impediments and dilemmas that delivers neither justice, nor efficiency, nor constitutional conditions of confinement,” the professors Kitty Calavita and Valerie Jenness wrote in “Appealing to Justice,” a book about their research.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Blake’s case won’t be among its loudest this term. The implications of a ruling in Blake’s favor would be small, leaving the P.L.R.A. intact. A ruling in Ross’s favor, though, could encourage state prison systems across the country to take further advantage of the P.L.R.A., and make their grievance procedures more complex than they already are. For prisoners with legitimate cases, the path to justice would get that much harder.
Rachel Poser is an assistant editor at Harper’s Magazine.