Law professors Margo Schlanger of Washington University, St. Louis, and Giovanna Shay of Yale indict the federal Prison Litigation Reform Act(PLRA) of 1996 for "undermining the rule of law in America's prisons" by "preventing inmates from raising legitimate claims" against their keepers.
The professors trace the subsequent "dramatic decline" in prisoner law suits to the fact that "constitutionally meritorious cases are now faced with new and often insurmountable obstacles."
What's more, the PLRA "undermines the rule of law," Schlanger and Shay say, "by shielding corrections officials from accountability even in situations in which law violations are clear."
In an article published in the Fall, 2009, issue of The Long Term View, the magazine of the Massachusetts School of Law at Andover, the professors say that PLRA's provision requiring prisoners to exhaust internal grievance procedures before filing suit has "drastically shrunk" the number of federal cases filed from 26 per thousand inmates in 1995 to 11 per thousand inmates in 2005.
Juvenile prisoners, often the targets of molestation and rape, have been affected because so many of them "are not able to follow the complex requirements imposed by the statute," the law professors write. Instead, the law holds incarcerated youth "to an impossibly high standard of self-reliance."
"Wardens and sheriffs routinely refuse to engage inmate grievances because they commit minor technical errors, such as using the incorrect form," Schlanger and Shay write, and "each such misstep by a prisoner bars consideration of even an otherwise meritorious civil rights action."
"Juvenile detainees," they remind, "are young, often undereducated, and have very high rates of psychiatric disorders" and generally do not have access to law libraries.
The co-authors point to a case in South Bend, Ind., where a young male was repeatedly beaten with "padlock-laden socks" and raped and subsequently suffered a seizure. Even though the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department found the South Bend Juvenile Facility "fails to adequately protect the juveniles in its care from harm," a district court dismissed the claim of the inmate's family on grounds the youth had not filed a grievance in the facility. Often, inmates fear retaliation if they file such grievances.