In 2014, Abu Huraira, 45, was transferred to Georgia State Prison after 16 years in the custody of the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC). On his arrival, prison officials failed to give him an initial medical screening, violating GDC policy. Because of that, Huraira went weeks without receiving medication for his chronic pain or dental care for a decaying tooth, despite submitting multiple requests to medical staff at the prison. Additionally, prison officials forced Huraira, a Muslim, to shave his beard using unsanitized clippers, exposing him to the risk of bloodborne diseases, and denied him access to Islamic prayer services, according to a lawsuit he later filed in federal court.
When Huraira sued GDC for violating his rights to medical care and religious liberty, GDC attorneys didn’t dispute the substance of his allegations. Instead, they argued that he had no right to sue at all because he had not filed a formal grievance with prison authorities. Even though Huraira told the court that corrections officers had refused to allow him to file a grievance, a federal judge ruled in GDC’s favor and dismissed Huraira’s lawsuit on the grounds that he had “failed to exhaust administrative remedies.”
All of this was possible thanks to a little-known federal law called the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA). Signed into law in 1996 by President Bill Clinton, the PLRA sought to tamp down on “frivolous” lawsuits filed by prisoners by making it easier for courts to dismiss cases before they ever went to trial. The law also capped the amount of damages prisoners could collect from prison officials who violated their constitutional rights, discouraging professional attorneys from taking on prisoners’ cases.
As a result, the PLRA has made it virtually impossible for prisoners to hold corrections officials accountable for civil rights violations like excessive force or inadequate medical care. Without judicial oversight, corrections officials act with impunity because they rarely face consequences for violating prisoners’ rights.