Marian Wright Edelman, president of The Children’s Defense Fund, writes on today’s Huffington Post about the importance of a Congressional bureaucratic remedy to the crisis affecting tens of thousands of the nation’s youth who are locked away in detention centers, where they are suffering extensively from physical and sexual abuse.
At issue is the Prison Abuse Remedies Act of 2007 (PARA), which would correct problems imposed by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) that was passed in 1996. That earlier law made it tougher for prison inmates to file “frivolous” law suits. It also made it harder for children being abused in detention centers to get any relief or protection from their abusers.
Edelman presents some of the unjust burdens places on children by the PLRA:
One of the PLRA’s provisions prohibits prisoners from filing lawsuits for mental or emotional injury without demonstrating a “physical injury.” And prisoners must exhaust all administrative remedies before they can file a suit in federal court. The law also put restrictions on attorneys’ fees in prisoner cases. The effect of these provisions has been to reduce the number of prisoner abuse complaints that reach federal courts. The “success” of the PLRA, however, comes with problems as civil liberties and youth advocates charge that the act’s requirements pose insurmountable barriers to adults and youths filing legitimate claims in federal court.
There are good reasons why children and teens should be excluded from the requirements of the PLRA. First and foremost, children do not file frivolous lawsuits. Many incarcerated children and teens lack adequate legal representation to assist them if they allege abuse or violation of other rights. Children and teens are far less capable than adults of following the difficult and often convoluted administrative processes they must adhere to in order to comply with the PLRA. Most importantly, it is unacceptable for children and youths to be forced to report abuse to either their abusers or subordinates of their abusers.
The law’s requirement that they exhaust all administrative remedies could mean a youth detainee would have to take her complaint to the prison guard who rapes her in hopes that the head of the detention center, who winks at the guard’s behavior, does something about it. Many youths fear or actually risk retaliation if they file an administrative complaint. The fact that most children and teens cannot overcome these hurdles effectively insulates correctional facilities from accountability for deplorable detention and correctional facility conditions.
In other words, the PLRA had the effect of reducing transparency and accountability in corrections systems all over the country. That’s a cogent argument for why we need the PARA to correct the PLRA, but Edelman knew better than to just present the legislative argument. Indeed, she starts her piece with specific complaints of abuse against incarcerated children.
- Children forced to eat their own vomit.
- Children left hog-tied face down on the floor and left there for 12-13 hours.
- Children left naked for weeks in small isolation cells.
That’s starting to get at the stories that will make people move.
“To make gentle the life of this world—let us dedicate ourselves to that,” is what Bobby Kennedy said the night Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated. We can’t make gentle the life of this world unless we’re willing to confront and correct its brutality. Marian Wright Edelman is doing her part. May we each do the same.