The Prison Pleading Trap
53 Pages Posted: 16 Sep 2022
Date Written: 2022
The prison is an epicenter of dominance—it is where state-sanctioned abuses are most forcefully expressed and legitimized without being seen. Incarcerated people have increasingly turned to civil prisoners’ rights litigation to expose the injustices hidden behind prison walls. But rather than safeguarding incarcerated people’s access to courts, Congress enacted the Prison Litigation Reform Act to obstruct their pathways to judicial relief. A centerpiece of this effort is the Act’s exhaustion provision, which mandates proper completion of the prison grievance process before challenging any condition of prison life in federal court.
Prisons design demanding grievance pleading standards to make exhaustion more difficult for the people they confine. When a federal court disagrees with the prison’s interpretation of a pleading rule and permits an incarcerated plaintiff’s claim to move forward, the decision is seen as a victory that safeguards incarcerated people’s right to judicial redress. It is tempting to perceive the plaintiff’s success as the prison’s defeat. But when we peer behind the curtain and interrogate what follows, a dangerous manipulation of power emerges. Prisons have responded to litigation “defeats” by amending their grievance rules to impose a more onerous pleading standard that forecloses the short-lived victory. What appears at first glance to be a welcome exercise of judicial intervention functionally becomes an invitation—indeed, a blueprint—for the prison to raise its grievance pleading bar and immunize itself from liability.
This reactive process—what I call the “prison pleading trap”—creates an untenable and perilous regime. And its harms are heightened for people of color, who are disproportionately incarcerated and, while confined, disproportionately subject to prison abuses requiring redress. This article investigates the trap’s operations and impacts, and upon considering a range of potential solutions, it ends by recognizing the merits of transformative change. Congress created PLRA exhaustion to reduce the quantity of prison litigation, but this reform addressed a symptom (the volume of litigation) while ignoring the disease (growing prison populations and persisting abuses). Discrete procedural solutions to prison grievance pleading will have meaningful impacts, but they are ultimately incomplete without a concurrent commitment to decarceration.
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