Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Posts Tagged ‘prison litigation reform act

House Holds Hearings on Prison Sexual Abuse

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And if the statistics in the BJS reports are not enough, I ask you to consider one of these children, who have been beaten, assaulted and raped with no recourse or power to stop it, what if that child was the child’s picture you carry in your pocketbook or wallet? … Perhaps then we would not continue to hold hearings, create another commission or issue more reports.

— Grace Bauer, prepared testimony for House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security, Feb. 23, 2010.

Last month, the Bureau of Justice Statistics issued a troubling report showing that 12% of youth held in juvenile detention facilities report being the victim of sexual abuse, whether by other youth or staff. (New York Times columnist Ross Douthat covered this issue last week; the New York Review of Books published a lengthy discussion of the report here, and Public Criminology crunched the numbers here.) As I’ve blogged about before, the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 exacerbates the problem by making it very hard for juveniles who’ve been abused to seek judicial relief. The Prison Abuse Remedies Act (H.R. 4335), sponsored by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and supported by the ACLU, would remove the PLRA’s procedural hurdles for juveniles under 18.

Yesterday, the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security held hearings on preventing sexual assault in juvenile and adult prisons. The witness list included American University law professor Brenda Smith; Troy Erik Isaac, who was raped while in juvenile custody in California (NPR interviewed him here); Bernard Warner, head of California’s juvenile justice system; Sheriff Gabriel Morgan of Newport News, Va.; and Grace Bauer, whose son was adjudicated delinquent and who works with the Campaign for Youth Justice. After the jump I’ll provide some highlights from their prepared testimony.

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Louisiana Prisoner Sentenced to Eight Years of… Barbecuing Chicken, Waxing Floors at the Mayor’s Church, and Renting Moon Bounces for the Police Chief’s Side Business

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The Fifth Circuit recently ruled on a case out of Louisiana that is, well, not your typical conditions of confinement lawsuit. In 1996, John D. Williams pled guilty to simple burglary and was sentenced to eight years of hard labor:

His duties largely included maintaining city property and facilities such as City Hall, the railroad museum, ball parks, and even the police station. Williams was a trusty and the only inmate at DeQuincy [City Jail] who performed work of this nature. As a result, Williams also enjoyed certain privileges unavailable in most prisons. [Footnote: Williams was permitted to wear civilian clothing often purchased at town expense. He had his own room in which he was allowed to have private visits with women. He had a telephone, internet access, and access to a washing machine and cable television. It was common for Williams to be driven to the store to purchase personal items like food, cigarettes, and magazines.]

Williams asserts that Buddy Henagan, then the mayor of DeQuincy, and Michael Suchanek, DeQuincy’s Chief of Police, forced Williams to work additional hours beyond the regular work week and sometimes for their private gain. Henagan had him wax the floors of Henagan’s church; work 20 hours a day during the city’s railroad festival and cook barbecued chicken continuously for over 26 hours at various local fundraisers. Up to twice a month, he was required to ride around the city with Henagan between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. to count burned out street lights. Henagan took Williams to Texas once to transport furniture Henagan had been given. Suchanek required him to work off-hours for Suchanek’s private businesses, sometimes until midnight or later and often on weekends. These ventures included Suchanek’s space jump rental and his grass cutting business. Williams admits he was paid occasionally for work he performed for Henagan and Suchanek.

(Williams v. Henagan, et al., 07-30997, 5th Cir., Jan. 28, 2010, pp. 2-3)

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The Myth of the Frivolous Prisoner Lawsuit

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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).

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