Thirteen years ago, I received a letter at work.
“Greetings from Hell,” it began. “For those who’ve never been there, that would be a prison in East Texas.”
The letter was neatly hand-written with black ink in straight, evenly spaced lines across the blank white paper, a feat which those of us trained to write in college-ruled notebooks could hardly imagine doing. Its 43-year-old author was serving a life sentence—for what, he did not say. Instead he wrote of various legal challenges he had made on behalf of other prisoners (including veterans and the disabled), his educational accomplishments while incarcerated, and asked for information on where to find funding to complete a course in paralegal law.
His greeting from the netherworld still sticks in my mind today. But the substance of his letter is similar to thousands of others I have read for over a decade from people in prison. The demand for legal assistance is unceasing, pouring into the legal offices of the National Lawyers Guild and the Center for Constitutional Rights (my former and current employers, respectively). Some envelopes are written in elegant cursive, others in barely legible scrawl. Almost all request a legal handbook the Center and Guild have distributed since 2003, and many contain stories of horrific abuse. Yet they also describe prisoners’ tragic struggle to rectify injustice in a place where legal remedies rarely stand a chance. Much of this has to do with a piece of legislation titled the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which turns 20 this April.
Signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996 as a rider to the annual congressional appropriations bill, the PLRA laid waste to the ability of incarcerated people to bring prison officials to court for violations of their constitutional rights, whether it be racial discrimination, lack of medical care, or brutality by prison guards. The act was championed as a solution to the thousands of supposed “frivolous lawsuits” by prisoners, with barely any discussion by Congress about its far-reaching effects.
Locked away, those in prison are easily demonized, unable to refute any exaggerations or myths created by those on the outside. One story publicly hyped by members of Congress leading up to the act’s passage had a prisoner filing suit after receiving crunchy peanut butter instead of creamy. But when a federal judge researched the case later, he found that the issue wasn’t about that prisoner’s taste in condiments, but that the prisoner had never been reimbursed after returning the item. The price of a jar of peanut butter might seem trivial to those of us on the outside, but most people in prison are poor and are often deeply in debt. Plus, many prisons overcharge for simple items (the jar of peanut butter cost $2.50, significantly more than the average cost at the time). Looking back, the PLRA did not solve a problem of “frivolous” litigation, rather it masked and discredited the legitimate claims of people with nowhere else to turn.
Since the PLRA became law, tremendous burdens have been placed on prisoners wishing to file suit for violations of their constitutional rights. For example, one of the law’s provisions forces you to go through the prison’s administrative complaint procedures before bringing an actual lawsuit. This can take months. Imagine a prisoner who is in pain and in need of medical treatment, but ignored by prison staff: She must not only file her complaint with the same staff that is denying her treatment, but wait for a refusal, appeal that decision, and only after a judgment on that appeal can she then file a legal case beyond prison walls. By that time, it may be too late for a court to do anything.
It is time to repeal the PLRA. Over the past few years, scholars such as Michelle Alexander and Ta-Nehisi Coates have helped restart a national conversation around mass incarceration. In January, the Department of Justice recommended several prison reforms that were endorsed by the president himself. And last July, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy questioned the legitimacy of solitary confinement and American prison conditions as a whole. He wrote that “practitioners and policymakers” stop caring after a criminal verdict, adding, “Too easily ignored is the question of what comes next. Prisoners are shut away—out of sight, out of mind.”
That’s the impact the PLRA has had these past two decades. The law makes invisible the struggles of prisoners who advocate for themselves, punishing them if they choose to litigate, blockading them from receiving outside legal help, and minimizing the availability of real justice for the few who do prevail in a court of law. If we are to truly change our prison system, it is vital that we be aware of the abuses and struggles going on inside prisons. Repealing the PLRA will not only open up pathways to justice, but create new avenues for reforms that only those trapped in the hellish corners of East Texas and elsewhere know are necessary.