The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) has served as a monstrous obstacle for people attempting to oversee the cruel and unusual punishments inside American prisons. Today, the U.S. Supreme Court delivered what may be a major windfall for the human rights of incarcerated people, by holding that a petitioner need only exhaust the administrative remedies that are actually available. Read the full opinion of Ross v. Blake, here.
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.
This ruling may prove extremely useful, particularly to the many jailhouse lawyers incarcerated throughout the nation. These legal workers, themselves incarcerated, are generally the first line of offense and last line of defense for people facing abuses in the darkest corridors of America.
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.