Preserving the Rule of Law in America’s Prisons: The Case for Amending the Prison Litigation Reform Act

Author(s): 
Margo Schlanger & Giovanna Shay
Publication Date: 
March 28, 2007

ACS is pleased to distribute an Issue Brief by Law Professor Margo Schlanger at Washington University in St. Louis and Giovanna Shay, Robert M. Cover Clinical Teaching Fellow at Yale Law School entitled “Preserving the Rule of Law in America’s Prisons: The case for amending the Prison Litigation Reform Act.” In this paper, Schlanger and Shay argue that certain provisions of the PLRA undermine the rule of law by shielding corrections officials from accountability even in situations in which law violations are clear. While the PLRA has shrunk the number of court cases initiated by prisoners and reduced the burden on prison and jail administrators as intended, the authors demonstrate that significant unintended problems also flow from this law. Schlanger and Shay contend that “constitutionally meritorious cases are faced with new and often insurmountable obstacles” and that the resulting harm is not only to the claimants in the particular cases that have been dismissed despite their merit, but to the entire system of accountability that ensures that prison and jail officials comply with constitutional mandates. Based on their review of cases decided under the PLRA, the authors note the unfortunate consequences for three groups in particular: juveniles incarcerated in juvenile facilities; inmates who have suffered injury in custody without a prior showing of physical injury, for example from religious discrimination or coerced sex; and inmates who have failed to exhaust their prisons’ internal grievance procedures, no matter how onerous, futile or dangerous compliance with those procedures might be for them, and despite the fact that the PLRA creates an incentive for prison authorities to erect ever higher procedural hurdles to foreclose litigation. The authors conclude by advocating that the PLRA be reformed in order to address these problems and protect the rule of law in America’s prisons and jails.

Note that ACS previously released an Issue Brief on a related topic by Deborah Golden of The D.C. Prisoners' Project of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.