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Commentary Justice

Opinion: Repeal the Prisoner Litigation Act

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By Roberto E. Alejandro

The writer is a civil rights and immigration law attorney with a solo practice in Annapolis.

Correctional officers assisting in the assault and attempted murder of inmates by other inmates. Correctional officers knocking inmates unconscious, sodomizing them, and then dragging them through the prison unconscious with their pants around their ankles. Prison officials subjecting Spanish speaking prisoners to legal processes without interpreters, violating their due process rights, and then stripping them of good time credits that would see them released earlier. Prison medical contractors denying health care to prisoners and leaving them in excruciating pain for months or years on end. All done under the seal of the great State of Maryland and in the name of its citizens.

These are just some of the cases I am currently participating in on behalf of clients incarcerated in the Maryland correctional system. In almost every instance, the ability of those clients to seek justice for the harm they have suffered is impeded by a law passed in 1997 by the Maryland General Assembly, the Prisoner Litigation Act.

Modeled on a similar federal law, Maryland’s Prisoner Litigation Act bars inmates from seeking the protection of state courts from abuse unless they have first exhausted all administrative remedies. Administrative remedies, in this context, refers to a grievance process in which inmates complain directly to their jailers over the harm those jailers have caused them.

To initiate a grievance, inmates have to go to the very correctional officers that harmed them in order to obtain forms for filing their complaint, and then hand those forms back to those same officers in the hopes the complaint will be timely processed. If an administrative complaint is not received within 30 days of the date of an alleged harm, it is time-barred, and the inmate can never seek any remedy, whether administrative or in the courts. Not surprisingly, grievance forms complaining of serious misconduct disappear and are never processed. If an attorney attempts to file the forms on the inmate’s behalf, the prison rejects them for not having been completed by the inmate, despite the fact that inmates have a right to representation in grievance matters.

The Prisoner Litigation Act is ostensibly designed to prevent meritless claims from reaching the courts. Because inmates have nothing but time on their hands, they certainly are theoretically in a position to file complaint after complaint over prison conditions. But the Maryland prisons are a place of regular abuse by government officials against citizens whose hands are literally shackled behind their backs, and complaint after complaint is the obvious order of the day. Rather than prevent meritless claims from reaching a court of law, the Prisoner Litigation Act prevents most claims from reaching a court of law, subjecting all prisoners to arbitrary punishment and unconstitutional prison conditions.

The consequence of the Prisoner Litigation Act is that the assaults, attempted murders, sexual assaults, and denial of medical care orchestrated by prison officials goes unaddressed, never even heard by a court of law, or quickly dismissed by those same courts for “failure to exhaust administrative remedies.” This is a violence against inmates our representative legislature seems to think conforms to the will of Marylanders.

The United States Constitution guarantees republican government to all U.S. Citizens, meaning a government where sovereignty lies in an elected legislature. Maryland’s legislature, the General Assembly, long controlled by Democrats, has seen it fit to allow some of our most vulnerable citizens, people who are literally shackled and caged, to be subjected to regular and arbitrary abuse by Maryland prison officials with no recourse. Any lawyer who has filed a lawsuit on behalf of prisoners since 1997 has found that suit opposed by a Democrat attorney general, whether J. Joseph Curran Jr., Doug Gansler, Brian Frosh, or shortly, Anthony Brown.

Despite their campaign marketing about concern for vulnerable populations, Democrats in this state have long presided over the abuse of vulnerable citizens, whether prisoners you have never heard of or prominent victims of state violence like Freddie Gray. Rather than pass or even attempt serious reforms to protect vulnerable populations, Democrats have instead occupied themselves with the passage of unserious ideas that do nothing to protect citizens from abuse, such as the repeal of the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights or police accountability boards that play no role in accountability.

With unified control of government, elected Democratic officials headed to Annapolis next month for the 2023 legislative session should make good on their claims about concern for minority populations and the vulnerable, to which the incarcerated certainly pertain, and repeal the Prisoner Litigation Act so inmates can fight arbitrary abuse and unconstitutional prison conditions in courts of law rather than before their abusers.