The PLRA was passed in 1995 and primarily did two things: (1) The consent decrees, between prison administrators and incarcerated people, fought for through protest and legal struggle, became unenforceable in federal courts. (2) Anyone alleging abuse or discrimination had to first go through what is generally a long, arduous, multi-step administrative grievance procedure prior to filing in court. This "exhaustion" requirement has kept many cases from seeing the light of day, as victims are often intimidated and retaliated against, and/or cannot navigate the process due to language and literacy barriers. Because many prisons have administrative review procedures that resemble the twisted logic of Kafka and Escher, victims must get past their victimizer before gaining outside review. This "exhaustion" is what the Court reviewed in Ross v. Blake.
The Court dismissed the 4th Circuit ruling, that Mr. Blake's case provided a special extra-textual exception to evade exhaustion (following the 2nd Circuit's 2015 ruling), because his case was fully investigated by the prison officials. What seemed like a reasonable interpretation to the 4th Circuit highlights just how irrational this relic of the Clinton Administration is, with SCOTUS that the PLRA is a strict regime with absolutely no wiggle room. However, the Court was not without a rational review, because the prison would not allow Mr. Blake (or anyone, per policy) to exhaust the grievance procedure when an internal investigation is launched.
Blake’s contention that the prison’s grievance process was not in fact available to him warrants further consideration below. Pp. 8–14.
(a) Blake’s suit may yet be viable. The PLRA contains its own, textual exception to mandatory exhaustion. Under §1997e(a), an inmate’s obligation to exhaust hinges on the “availab[ility]” of administrative remedies. A prisoner is thus required to exhaust only those grievance procedures that are “capable of use” to obtain “some relief for the action complained of.” Booth, 532 U. S., at 738.
As relevant here, there are three kinds of circumstances in which an administrative remedy, although officially on the books, is not capable of use to obtain relief. First, an administrative procedure is unavailable when it operates as a simple dead end—with officers unable or consistently unwilling to provide any relief to aggrieved in- Cite as: 578 U. S. ____ (2016) 3 Syllabus mates. Next, an administrative scheme might be so opaque that it becomes, practically speaking, incapable of use—i.e., some mechanism exists to provide relief, but no ordinary prisoner can navigate it. And finally, a grievance process is rendered unavailable when prison administrators thwart inmates from taking advantage of it through machination, misrepresentation, or intimidation. Pp. 8–11.
(b) The facts of this case raise questions about whether, given these principles, Blake had an “available” administrative remedy to exhaust. Ross’s exhaustion defense rests on Blake’s failure to seek relief through Maryland’s Administrative Remedy Procedure (ARP) process, which begins with a grievance to the warden. That process is the standard method for addressing inmate complaints in the State’s prisons. But Maryland separately maintains the IIU to look into charges of prison staff misconduct, and the IIU did just that here. Blake urged in the courts below that once the IIU commences such an inquiry, a prisoner cannot obtain relief through the ARP process. And in this Court, the parties have lodged additional materials relating to the interaction between the IIU and the ARP. Both sides’ submissions, although scattershot and in need of further review, lend some support to Blake’s account.
Blake’s filings include many administrative dispositions indicating that Maryland wardens routinely dismiss ARP grievances as procedurally improper when parallel IIU investigations are pending. In addition, Blake has submitted briefs of the Maryland attorney general specifically recognizing that administrative practice. And Ross’s own submissions offer some confirmation of Blake’s view: Ross does not identify a single case in which a warden considered the merits of an ARP grievance while an IIU inquiry was underway. On remand, the Fourth Circuit should perform a thorough review of such materials, and then address whether the remedies Blake did not exhaust were “available” under the legal principles set out here. Pp. 11–14.
Until American citizens are free to enter and oversee the prisons and jails built in their name, with their money, incarcerating their community: we are forced to rely upon the ability of people to plead their case to someone, anyone, with the power to intervene. This is usually a court, and the PLRA has erected a massive hurdle that now faces a chink in its armor. Read more about the troubles and trends of this 20 year old law that allowed prisons to becomes more inhumane, and spur the latest generation of inside protest.
The PLRA enactment was followed soon after with the destruction of habeas corpus review by the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA). Coming on the heels of the demolition of the Alfred Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and arrest of Timothy McVeigh, this legislation was quickly passed- and with little connection to either terrorism and the death penalty. This was the age of bipartisanship, where the Gingrich Republicans and Clinton Democrats found equal footing.
AEDPA created major hurdles to federal review of state convictions, and likely stands in the way of thousands of wrongful convictions throughout America. Convictions where AEDPA prevents the review of the available evidence, and denying review of misconduct or mistakes by prosecutors, police, defense attorneys, and judges.