The Myth of the Frivolous Prisoner Lawsuit
I recently came across this op-ed in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, making light of prisoner abuse claims. “If there is a goofy lost cause, a prisoner has found it,” goes the headline, and from there, columnist Mike Nichols goes on to ridicule a series of prisoner lawsuits filed in recent years in his home state of Wisconsin. (The op-ed starts out by lampooning the Seventh Circuit’s recent decision upholding a prison ban on the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons.)
It would be nice to think that Mike Nichols is right — that the real problem with America’s prisons is that prisoners just have too much time on their hands, and too much access to the courts, and so they wile away their days dreaming up frivolous lawsuits — but in reality, prisoners are less litigious than the general public, and more importantly, the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 has had the effect of making it very, very difficult for prisoners who have been raped, assaulted, or otherwise abused behind bars to seek judicial relief. As noted in a recent New York Times op-ed:
Prisons across the country have used [the PLRA] to dismiss suits challenging all kinds of outrageous treatment: strip-searching of female prisoners by male guards; revealing to other inmates that a prisoner was H.I.V.-positive; forcing an inmate to stand naked for 10 hours.
Legislation introduced in December 2009 by Rep. Robert Scott (D-VA) would remove some of the PLRA’s more onerous requirements so that inmates who’ve been raped, abused, or assaulted behind bars — especially those under 18, who have perhaps suffered most under the PLRA — have a better chance of getting their day in court. The bill has the support of a broad coalition of lawyers and organizations (including the American Bar Association and the United Methodist Church).