Trends in Prisoner Litigation, as the PLRA Enters Adulthood
by Margo Schlanger*
The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA),1 enacted in 1996 as part of the Newt Gingrich “Contract with America,”2 is now as old as some prisoners. In the year after the statute’s passage, some commenters labeled it merely “symbolic.”3 In fact, as was evident nearly immediately, the PLRA undermined prisoners’ ability to bring, settle and win lawsuits.4 The PLRA conditioned court access on prisoners’ meticulously correct prior use of onerous and error-inviting prison grievance procedures.5 It increased filing fees,6 decreased attorneys’ fees7 and limited damages.8 It subjected injunctive settlements to the scope limitations usually applicable only to litigated injunctions.9 It made prison and jail population caps—previously common—far more difficult to obtain.10 And it put in place a rule inviting frequent relitigation of injunctive remedies, whether settled or litigated.11
The resulting impact on jail and prison litigation has been extremely substantial. In two articles about a decade ago, I presented descriptive statistics showing the PLRA-caused decline in civil rights filings and plaintiffs’ victories,12 and the likewise declining prevalence of court-ordered regulation of jails and prisons ...
PLRA Attorney Fee Limits Inapplicable to Discovery Violation Awards
In April 2014, a Virginia federal district court awarded $15,980 in attorney fees for a discovery violation in a class-action prisoner civil rights suit. The court’s award came after it found the PLRA does not apply when granting attorney ...
16 Years of Failure to Treat Neurological Disorder Results in $48,000 Award
by David Reutter
A New York Court of Claims awarded a prisoner $48,000 for pain and suffering caused by prison medical staff rendering inadequate treatment during his first 16 years of incarceration, “including a failure to ...
From the Editor
by Paul Wright
Next April will mark the 20th anniversary of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) – the continuing legacy of President Clinton and Congress which has done more to undermine the rule of law and constitutional rights since the internment of Japanese Americans in concentration camps during World War II.
When the PLRA was enacted in 1996, prisons and jails in some 42 states were under court injunctions or consent decrees designed to remedy unconstitutional conditions of confinement. In one of the most reactionary pieces of legislation in several generations (today no one remembers that Congress passed and Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act to ensure gays and lesbians could not be married at the same time the PLRA was enacted, and while DOMA has since been found unconstitutional, prisoners remain screwed), the PLRA served to ensure prisoners face extraordinary barriers just to have their constitutional claims heard by a federal court. No one else in America needs to exhaust an administrative remedy system set up by the very same people who are violating the Constitution in order to have their claims heard in federal court.
While the propaganda of the time claimed the ...
More Jurisdictions Don’t Renew Corizon Contracts – Including Big Loss in New York City
by Greg Dober
Recent news for for-profit prison and jail healthcare provider Corizon with respect to contract renewals has not been good. In June 2015, it was announced that two of the company’s clients, the New York City jail system – including Rikers Island – and the Allegheny County Jail in Pennsylvania, would not be renewing their contracts with Corizon to provide medical services to prisoners. In both cases, the contracts were not renewed due to issues related to the company’s performance.
The jails are at opposite ends of the size spectrum, with Rikers holding approximately 11,000 prisoners and the Allegheny County Jail housing approximately 2,000. Yet Corizon was unable to effectively manage either facility, resulting in the loss of the contracts. Both New York City and Allegheny County chose not to have the contract rebid to any of the other large private medical care providers, such as Centurion, Naphcare or Wexford Health Sources.
Additionally, according to an April 2015 news report, “since 2012, Corizon has lost statewide contracts covering 84,000 inmates in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Pennsylvania.” [See: PLN, March 2014, p ...
Hundreds of South Carolina Prisoners Sent to Solitary Confinement Over Facebook
by Dave Maass
In the South Carolina prison system, accessing Facebook is an offense on par with murder, rape, rioting, escape and hostage-taking.
Back in 2012, the South Carolina Department of Corrections (SCDC) made “Creating and/or Assisting with a Social Networking Site” a Level 1 offense, a category reserved for the most violent violations of prison conduct policies. It’s one of the most common Level 1 offense charges brought against prisoners, many of whom, like most social network users, want to remain in contact with friends and family in the outside world and keep up on current events. Some prisoners ask their families to access their online accounts for them, while many access the Internet themselves through a contraband cell phone (possession of which is yet another Level 1 offense).
Through a request under South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act and other public records, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) found that, over the last three years, prison officials have brought more than 400 disciplinary cases for “social networking” – almost always for using Facebook. The offenses come with heavy penalties, such as years in solitary confinement and ...
Breaking News: CDCR Settles Solitary Confinement Class-Action Suit
by Derek Gilna
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has long been criticized for its excessive use of solitary confinement, and no facility has been subject to more criticism than Pelican Bay State Prison, which confines over 1,100 prisoners in supermax conditions that some observers have called “torture.”
However, after six years of litigation, dozens of depositions, multiple expert witness statements and reports, the exchange of tens of thousands of documents in discovery and multiple motions, a federal lawsuit that began as a pro se prisoner complaint in 2009 and later became a class-action finally settled on August 31, 2015 following months of intense negotiations. [See: PLN, Oct. 2014, p.30; Oct. 2012, p.1].
The settlement discussions came to a head shortly after the CDCR’s final motion to dismiss was denied and discovery was closed by the district court.
As part of the settlement, the CDCR agreed to stop placing prisoners in indeterminate solitary confinement in Special Housing Units (SHUs) based upon alleged “security threat group” (gang) membership; to release long-term SHU prisoners back to general population after a transition period; and to institute a modified two-year ...
Due Process Violation for “Sham” Reviews During 13 Years in Segregation
by David M. Reutter
The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a grant of summary judgment to prison officials on a due process claim, holding there was sufficient evidence for a jury to determine whether a prisoner received “sham” reviews during almost 13 years in administrative segregation.
Michigan state prisoner Charles J. Selby was held in isolation at the Marquette Branch Prison from 1998 to 2011 after he was found to pose a serious escape risk. He is serving a life sentence for murder, a two-year sentence for being a felon in possession of a firearm and a two-to-five year sentence for attempted escape.
Seven years after his placement in solitary confinement, “Selby developed respiratory problems, frequent panic attacks, confusion, concentration and memory problems, infections, insomnia, paranoia, and hallucinations. He experienced despair, depression, and thoughts of suicide.”
After Selby filed suit, the federal district court granted summary judgment to the defendants on his due process and religious rights claims, and he appealed. Notably, Selby was released from segregation about 18 months after filing his lawsuit. By virtue of that release, his Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA ...
News in Brief
Alabama: On April 9, 2013, Kenneth Wayne Patton was arrested on a domestic violence charge. When he arrived at the Etowah County Jail, he informed guards that he used to be employed at the St. Clair Correctional Facility and should be put in protective custody. Despite that warning, he was placed in general population. Prisoners at the jail eventually discovered Patton’s former occupation and assaulted him; he suffered a broken nose, cuts and a broken tooth. In April 2015, Patton filed a federal lawsuit against jail officials accusing them of deliberate indifference for failing to protect him.
Arizona: No injuries were reported after a fire broke out on July 25, 2015 at a prison in Florence run by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). CCA issued a statement that said the fire at the Central Arizona Detention Center started in a dryer in the laundry room. Flames spread to the roof through a vent and ignited some plastic, causing extensive heavy black smoke. A Florence official said the fire did not cause “serious damage” to the facility.
Arkansas: On April 18, 2015, Pulaski County sheriff’s officials intercepted a phone call which indicated that contraband would be ...
Criminal Justice Resources
Compiles information about prisoner torture, beatings, rape, etc. to include in reports about U.S. prison conditions; also works on death penalty issues. Contact: Amnesty International, 5 Penn Plaza, New York NY 10001 (212) 807-8400. www.amnestyusa.org
Black and Pink
Black and Pink is an open family of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer prisoners and “free world” allies who support each other. A national organization, Black and Pink reaches thousands of prisoners across the country and provides a free monthly newspaper of prisoner-generated content, a free (non-sexual) pen-pal program and connections with anti-prison movement organizing. Contact: Black and Pink, 614 Columbia Rd., Dorchester, MA 02125 (617) 519-4387. www.blackandpink.org
Center for Health Justice
Formerly CorrectHELP. Provides information related to HIV in prison – contact them if you are not receiving proper HIV medication or are denied access to programs due to your HIV status. Contact: CHJ, 900 Avila Street, Suite 301, Los Angeles, CA 90012 (213) 229-0985; HIV Hotline: (213) 229-0979 (collect calls from prisoners OK). www.centerforhealthjustice.org
Works to exonerate the wrongfully convicted, in both cases involving DNA evidence and those that do not. Centurion only takes 1-2 new ...