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HRW report: “No Equal Justice: The Prison Litigation Reform Act in the United States”

Estados Unidos ten uns 2,3 millóns de presos, máis do 1% da súa poboación adulta… Human Rights Watch publicou onte un informe denunciando as barreiras legais que deben superar nos Estados Unidos aqueles presos que queren poñer unha denuncia. O informe leva por título “No Equal Justice: The Prison Litigation Reform Act in the United States”. Copio un extracto da súa introducción:

[…] Carved in stone over the entrance to the United States Supreme Court are the words “equal justice under law”. And for more than 140 years, the US Constitution has guaranteed to all persons the “equal protection of the laws.” But for those in prisons, jails, and juvenile facilities in the United States, the promise of equal justice is illusory. The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), passed by Congress in 1996, denies equal access to the courts to the more than 2.3 million incarcerated persons in the United States.

The PLRA subjects lawsuits brought by prisoners in the federal courts to a host of burdens and restrictions that apply to no other persons. As a result of these restrictions, prisoners seeking the protection of the courts against unhealthy or dangerous conditions of confinement, or those seeking a remedy for injuries inflicted by prison staff and others, have had their cases thrown out of court. These restrictions apply not only to persons who have been convicted of crime, but also to pretrial detainees who have not yet been tried and are presumed innocent. Human Rights Watch is not aware of any other country in which national legislation singles out prisoners for a unique set of barriers to vindicating their legal rights in court.

The PLRA’s restrictions include:

The exhaustion of remedies requirement. Before a prisoner may file a lawsuit in court, he must first take his complaints through all levels of the prison’s or jail’s grievance system, complying with all deadlines and other procedural rules of that system. If the prisoner fails to comply with all technical requirements, or misses a filing deadline that may be as short as a few days, his right to sue may be lost forever.

The physical injury requirement. A prisoner may not recover compensation for “mental or emotional injury” unless she makes a “prior showing of physical injury.” Under this provision, prisoners who have been subjected to sexual assault and other intentional abuse by prison staff have been denied a remedy. Indeed, because of this provision, many of the abuses that took place in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison would not have been compensable if they had occurred in a US prison or jail.

Application to children. The provisions of the PLRA apply not only to adult prisoners, but also to children confined in prisons, jails, and juvenile detention facilities. The exhaustion requirement has proven to be an especially formidable barrier to justice for incarcerated children, particularly in light of court rulings that efforts to exhaust on their behalf by parents or other adults do not satisfy the PLRA.

Restrictions on court oversight of prison conditions. The PLRA restricts the power of federal courts to make and enforce orders limiting overcrowding or otherwise remedying unlawful conditions in prisons and jails.

Limitations on attorney fees. If a prisoner files a lawsuit and wins, establishing that her rights have been violated, the PLRA limits the amount her attorneys can be paid.

The PLRA’s sponsors argued that the law was necessary to deal with “frivolous” lawsuits brought by prisoners. Some prisoners, like some non-prisoners, do file frivolous suits, and the PLRA includes the reasonable requirement that prisoner cases be subject to a preliminary screening process and be immediately dismissed if they are frivolous or malicious, or if they fail to state a claim on which relief can be granted. But the cases described in this report show that other provisions of the PLRA have resulted in dismissal of claims involving serious physical injury, sexual assault, and intentional abuse by prison staff—claims that no reasonable person would characterize as frivolous.

Unlike many other democracies, the United States has no independent national agency that monitors conditions in prisons, jails, and juvenile facilities and enforces minimal standards of health, safety, and humane treatment. Perhaps for this reason, oversight and reform of conditions in these institutions has fallen primarily to the federal courts. Beginning in the 1970s, lawsuits brought by prisoners led to improved medical care, sanitation, and protection from assault. While significant problems remained, by the time the PLRA was passed in 1996, US prison conditions had been transformed in just a few short decades.

The effect of the PLRA on prisoners’ access to the courts was swift. Between 1995 and 1997, federal civil rights filings by prisoners fell 33 percent, despite the fact that the number of incarcerated persons had grown by 10 percent in the same period. By 2001 prisoner filings were down 43 percent from their 1995 level, despite a 23 percent increase in the incarcerated population. By 2006 the number of prisoner lawsuits filed per thousand prisoners had fallen 60 percent since 1995.

If the effect of the PLRA were to selectively discourage the filing of frivolous or meritless lawsuits, as its sponsors predicted, then we would expect to find prisoners winning a larger percentage of their lawsuits after the law’s enactment than they did before. But the most comprehensive study to date shows just the opposite: since passage of the PLRA, prisoners not only are filing fewer lawsuits, but also are succeeding in a smaller proportion of the cases they do file. […]

16 Xuño 2009 - Posted by | Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, United States

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