Guest Post by Alan CYA #65085
Editors’ Note: We’ve written before about two laws from the 1990s that make it close to impossible for prisoners to challenge any injustices and abuses they encounter in various part of the American criminal justice system—whether in the courts or in prison itself. This guest post on the subject comes from a reader who has served time himself and also lost family members to the prison system, and can envision what it must be like to endure what is effectively a prisoner’s Catch-22. Alan provided us with the following biography:
Life on the mean streets of neighborhoods such as Hunters Point, San Francisco, or Pacoima, California is not conducive for raising a child and the proof of this is I ended up a ward of the state in the California Youth Authority system at the age of 12 and 16.
I do not claim innocence nor do I seek sympathy for my life experiences. It is what it is; I have run their cruel gauntlet and reemerged to find relative success in life. It helps me to daily remind myself of Booker T. Washington’s words: “Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome.”
However, I have not forgotten those that I left behind.
For as Solomon Burke sings “None of us are free if one of us is chained.”
In her book The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander writes: “The entrance to a new caste system can be found at the prison gate, because that is when you are branded a felon. Your life as you knew it before is over. All the forms of discrimination that is illegal for the rest of the country can then be practiced against you with impunity.” This impunity has always existed, in one form or another. But it has been extended and codified by two laws, both of them passed in the last 15 years.
The Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) of 1996 requires that prisoners who wish to appeal their convictions by state courts must petition the federal courts within one year. In addition, inmates must make all their claims for relief at one time. It’s not difficult to see why these rules would run counter to the interests of real justice in many cases.
Imagine entering the horrifying new environment of prison, and still being forced to file these appeals immediately. That is assuming you are aware of the time-limit, know the law, and realize that your rights have been violated and your original conviction can be challenged. Even in this case, I think your immediate survival might be a higher priority.
State prisoners who are unaware of the one-year limitation simply lose their right of appeal. So do any prisoners who realize that their rights have been violated only after the year has been passed. This is a very likely scenario, since newly arriving prisoners rarely have the legal advice or background to understand these complex issues.
Compounding this problem is the fact that prisoners seeking federal review generally have no right to a lawyer and few have the funds to hire one independently. Consequentially, even those prisoners who are conscious of the time limit often file inadequate petitions of their own. If their efforts fail and they subsequently manage to come up with the money to hire a lawyer–by then it’s often too late.
But the obstacles to seeking justice do not end there. In the case of a Constitutional rights violation by a state court, its ruling can only be reversed if the state court’s application of the law was not just incorrect, but “unreasonable.” Even if the Supreme Court has spoken clearly about the right’s existence and nature, and the state appellate court misunderstood the law, if the state’s incorrect interpretation was “reasonable,” then its decision stands.
So your constitutional rights can be violated during your trial, then the state appellate court can compound this error by incorrectly reaffirming your conviction—but if the federal courts can still rule that the mistake was “reasonable,” you will not get a new trial.
In other words: Rank-and-file prisoners, who are statistically likely to be both impoverished and undereducated and are operating from behind bars, must know the law well enough to file their appeals quickly and correctly. But state appellate judges are not expected to know the law well enough to accurately interpret the rulings of the United States Supreme Court.
All of this is, of course, especially sad if it is a death penalty case. (But after all, this is exactly the motivation for the law in the first place: There’s a reason why it’s called the “Effective Death Penalty Act.”) Never mind that, as NYU Law professor Bryan Stevenson told Bill Moyers in a recent interview, “For every eight people who have been executed, we’ve identified one innocent person. If we will tolerate that kind of error rate in the death penalty context, it reveals a whole lot about the rest of our criminal justice system and about the rest of our society.”
Knowing all this can only deepen the prisoner’s distrust of the American justice system, and his anger will grow day by the day and with every humiliation and abuse that he endures. The rage that he feels is shared by many others, and together their voices ultimately lead to a confrontation with the men running these prisons. When the frustrated prisoners act out, even more draconian measures can be deployed against them. And if prisoners wish to challenge these harsh measures, another law waits to thwart all their efforts: The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), also passed in 1996.
Many guards have no doubt been emboldened by the PLRA’s restrictive rules to further violate the human rights of inmates in their care. Yes, some prisoners, like some non-prisoners, do file frivolous law suits. But the PLRA has resulted in the dismissal of claims that no reasonable person would characterize as frivolous. That is because the law imposes filing procedures and requires hard-to-come-by documentation, combined with strict time restraints—all of which are so technically incomprehensible to the inmates that even constitutionally meritorious cases are often thrown out of court.
Is it right that persons who have been seriously abused should be denied legal recourse because others have filed frivolous cases? When they choose to seek justice, should they have to navigate a system obviously geared to make it next to impossible to have their grievance heard? A bedrock principle of international human rights law is the equality of all persons before the law. But in reviewing this act, Human Rights Watch has said that it is not aware of any other country in which national legislation singles out prisoners for a unique set of barriers to vindicating their legal rights in court. This is all the more alarming because the monitoring of conditions in prisons, jails, and juvenile facilities, in the U.S. is primarily left up to the federal courts.
The result of the PLRA is that fewer law suits have been filed by prisoners, and of those filed, fewer are being won. Many acts that would be treated as serious crimes if perpetrated upon those of us in the “free world” can legally be perpetrated upon prisoners under the tenets of this act. This includes any act that is deemed to produce only “mental or emotional injury.” Thus, the internationally recognized harm that is done to inmates in long-term solitary confinement is sanctioned and ignored, as is the emotional distress caused by the rape of inmates, whether by other prisoners or by guards.
All of this is of course exponentially more difficult for juveniles to manage. But sadly they, too, must navigate this maze of bureaucratic red tape, even as they struggle just to survive another day in adult prison.
In sum: The AEDPA gives prisoners little recourse if they fail to receive justice in the courts. And to complete the trap from which they are caught, the PLRA denies them recourse if they suffer injustice inside the prison walls.
“If you don’t say it’s wrong then that says it right.”