Since late last night, when we published our post about Albert Woodfox’s appeal, several readers have written to us about the grim legacy of the AEDPA–the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. That’s because the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals cited the AEDPA extensively in ruling that Woodfox’s conviction should not be overturned, and he should not receive a new trial. Under the “heightened deferential standards of review” demanded by the AEDPA, the Fifth Circuit said, the state court can be wrong or unjust in its conduct, as long as it isn’t “unreasonable.” An “unreasonable application of federal law,” it said, “is different from an incorrect or erroneous application of the law.”
While the consequences may be especially grim for Woodfox, who has spent 38 years in solitary confinement at Angola prison, he is no different from thousands of other prisoners who have felt the effects of the AEDPA since it was passed fourteen years ago. Nothing in the USA-PATRIOT Act, or any other measures passed under George W. Bush, surpasses this Clinton-era law when it comes to restricting the rights of rank-and-file U.S. prisoners to challenge unjust treatment, either in the courts or in prison itself.
Back in February, we ran two posts related in one way or another to this subject. Since little has changed since then(notwithstanding an occassional show of mercy from the Supreme Court), we are re-running both posts here, more or less in full.
In our previous post, we wrote about what the so-called War on Terror of the last decade owes to the longstanding War on Crime, in terms of how the United States treats its prisoners, and how willing we are to compromise their Constitutional and human rights. (In fact, UC psychology professor Craig Haney has suggested that the War on Crime ought rightly be called a “War on Prisoners.”) When in comes to inmates in U.S. prisons, some of the most damaging legislation was passed not under the Bush presidency, but during the Clinton years.
The Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), passed after the Oklahoma City bombing with broad bipartisan support, undermined habeas the corpus rights of U.S. prisoners long before the Bush Administration sought to withhold them from “enemy combatants.” AEDPA placed severe limitations on prisoners’ ability to challenge death sentences–or life sentences, or any unjust convictions–in federal courts, even when they had new evidence of their innocence.
Under AEDPA, proof of “actual innocence” does not necessarily prohibit the execution or continued incarceration of prisoners. (A recent Supreme Court decision in the Troy Davis case questioned, but did not eliminate, this reality.) And while the pace of executions has slowed in recent years in spite of the AEDPA, the law still stands in the way of appeals by many prisoners across the country who might have just grounds for seeking to have their convictions overturned.
The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) also passed in 1996, was intended “to deter inmates from bringing frivolous lawsuits,” said the New York Times in a recent editorial. “What the law has done instead is insulate prisons from a large number of very worthy lawsuits, and allow abusive and cruel mistreatment of inmates to go unpunished.”
While it may not go as far as Bush’s Justice Department in justifying torture, the PLRA sanctions treatment that would be considered cruel and inhumane under international standards. To mount a successful lawsuit against prison conditions, prisoners must now show that they suffered “physical injury.” As the Times describes it, “Prisons across the country have used this requirement to dismiss suits challenging all kinds of outrageous treatment: strip-searching of female prisoners by male guards; revealing to other inmates that a prisoner was H.I.V.-positive; forcing an inmate to stand naked for 10 hours.” Federal courts have also found that prolonged isolation and even prison rape often do not meet the “physical injury requirement.”
Both these laws are highly relevant to the issue of solitary confinement. Despite evidence of both the psychological and physical damage it causes, long-term lockdown has been deemed not to meet the physical injury requirement under the PLRA. And the AEDPA has limited recourse for wrongly convicted prisoners on America’s death rows and segregated housing units.
After the 2008 elections, a coalition of organizations coordinated by the Constitution Project produced a set of policy recommendations for the new administration and Congress on criminal justice and the rule of law. Among them were guidelines for reforming both the AEDPA and the PLRA.
House Democrats have introduced legislation to reform both of these laws: the Effective Death Penalty Appeals Bill and the Prison Abuse Remedies Act. So far neither bill has made much progress in Congress. As for the White House, critics have accused the Obama Administration of doing too little to address the rollback of Constitutional rights that took place under Bush in the name of the war on terror. It remains to be seen whether it will do more–or do anything–to restore rights lost in the name of the war on crime.