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Prisoners need protections

Two penal administrators argue that a law restricting inmate litigation went too far; some lawsuits are good for the system.

A report issued this week by Human Rights Watch, No Equal Justice, shows how a little-known federal law has created problems for prisons and their administrators. As corrections professionals, we applaud the report.

Passed more than 13 years ago, the Prison Litigation Reform Act was intended to curb frivolous prisoner lawsuits. It has achieved some of its goals, reducing the per capita rate of prisoner lawsuits by nearly 60 percent, according to Washington University law professor Margo Schlanger. But, like many "get tough" measures passed by Congress, the law has proven to be too extreme and, in many cases, counterproductive to good prison management.

For example, the act requires a prisoner to "exhaust administrative remedies" in his facility before filing suit in federal court. This may sound reasonable, but the law has been interpreted as forever barring a prisoner from filing a claim in court if he made a single technical mistake within the prison grievance system. That means prisoners who don't understand the rules or are misled or intimidated by prison staff - intentionally or otherwise - may lose the ability to enforce their civil rights.

The exhaustion requirement also creates a perverse incentive for prisons and jails to use grievance systems as a barrier to accountability, rather than as a forum for solving problems. As a result, many prison grievance rules are complex and arbitrary, with strict, unrealistic deadlines that are virtually impossible for prisoners to navigate - especially given that prisoners are frequently illiterate, learning-disabled, or mentally ill.

The law also bars monetary damages for mental or emotional distress in the absence of physical injury. In practice, this provision leads to the nonsensical result that prisoners who suffer serious violations of their rights - such as sexual abuse, racial discrimination, violations of their religious rights, or inhumane conditions of confinement - may never see their day in court, simply because their injuries aren't "physical."

These harsh provisions apply to incarcerated juveniles as well as adults, even though young offenders have never been major contributors to the problem of frivolous litigation. Juveniles are the most vulnerable of all prisoners and therefore most in need of protection from the courts.

The litigation reform act weakens court and hence public oversight of prisons and jails, shielding bad apples in the corrections system from accountability.

Before the law was passed, the courts served as an important check on what happened behind the barbed wire. In the 1970s and '80s, the federal courts oversaw the transformation of the nation's prisons, from dungeons that undermined American ideals of innate human dignity to professionalized correctional facilities.

Jeanne Woodford, a former warden of San Quentin State Prison in California, has observed that "litigation is probably the only thing that allows us to do our jobs as professionals."

Human Rights Watch's report documents the abuses fostered by the act. It calls on Congress to modify the administrative-exhaustion provision so that it doesn't allow technical mistakes to scuttle claims; abolish the "physical injury" requirement; and remove juveniles from the scope of the law. These are sensible recommendations that promote fairness and good prison administration.

Importantly, Human Rights Watch and other reform advocates do not call for changing some of the litigation act's key provisions. For example, a screening procedure in the law allows federal courts to dismiss claims that are frivolous, malicious, or wouldn't violate the law even if proven true. This provision has been a success, and there are no calls for changing it.

In the last Congress, Reps. Bobby Scott (D., Va.) and John Conyers (D., Mich.) introduced the Prison Abuse Remedies Act. It would have amended the worst features of the litigation law, restoring prisoners' ability to enforce their rights and the federal courts' ability to hold prisons accountable for violating the Constitution.

A broad coalition of lawyers, judges, advocacy groups, and the faith community support this remedy. It should be reintroduced and strongly supported by both parties and the Obama administration. It's time to restore the rule of law to American prisons and jails.