Lawsuits as Information: Prisons, Courts, and a Troika Model of Petition Harms
Doran, Marissa C. M., The Yale Law Journal
NOTE CONTENTS INTRODUCTION I. BACKGROUND A. Bringing the Prison to Court B. Passing the PLRA C. A Mismatched Solution for a Misunderstood Problem II. HARM TO PLAINTIFFS: IMPEDING ACCESS TO THE COURTS A. The Circuit Split B. Doctrinal Incoherence C. Blocking Individual Rights: The Individual and Cascade Mechanisms III. HARM TO THE PUBLIC: IMPAIRING THE INFORMATION FUNCTION OF LAWSUITS A. The Role of Prison Litigation: Information Poverty and Public Awareness B. The (First) Rise and Fall of Petitioning: Information and Limited Infrastructure C. The Information Function of Lawsuits IV. HARM TO THE COURTS: INTERFERING WITH THE SEPARATION OF POWERS V. CONSTITUTIONAL IMPLICATIONS: TOWARD A THEORY OF PETITIONING DISTINCT FROM SPEECH A. Petitioning and the Modern Court: The Residue of Speech B. Losing Access to Courts in "Speech": Guarnieri and a Petition Jurisprudence on the Verge of Misstep C. Toward a Theory of Petitioning Distinct from Speech CONCLUSION
The degree of civilization in a society is revealed by entering its prisons.
--Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1)
Does [your law] say that, before presenting a petition, you shall look into it, and see whether it comes from the virtuous, and the great and the mighty? No, sir, it says no such thing; the right of petition belongs to all.
--John Quincy Adams, on petitions from slaves, 1837 (2)
The prison guards at Iowa were not fans of Jeffery Royal. (3) Between his arrest and eventual imprisonment, Royal sustained a spinal cord injury in a farm accident. When he arrived in prison, he found himself unable to turn his wheelchair in his cell, unable to obtain medical assistance, and unable to extract himself from his prison jumpsuit without throwing himself to the floor. His repeated requests for pants were denied, and prison officials confiscated his wheelchair, forcing Royal to crawl on the floor. Rather than return the chair, the Security Director issued a directive "stating that any inmate seen crawling on the floor would be subject to discipline." (4) Royal submitted seventeen grievances and ultimately filed a motion in court seeking return of the wheelchair. (5) When the Director "tired of Royal's behavior," he put Royal in solitary confinement for sixty days. (6)
Royal filed a civil action for retaliation, alleging a violation of his constitutional right to access the courts, secured for prisoners by the Petition Clause of the First Amendment. (7) The district court found that the prison director had "unconstitutionally retaliated against Royal by placing him in segregation because [he] filed numerous grievances," (8) but held that Royal was ineligible for compensatory or punitive damages, citing language from the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), which specifies that prisoners may not recover for "mental or emotional injury" without a "prior showing of physical injury," (9) and holding that the bar applied to First Amendment claims. (10)
This Note is about the practice, employed by about half of the federal circuits, of conditioning recovery for retaliation claims brought by prisoners on a prior showing of physical injury. It argues that the portion of the PLRA that gives rise to this practice is unconstitutional as applied to claims, like retaliation, arising under the Petition Clause, because it arbitrarily impairs prisoners' right to access the courts and, in doing so, enables retaliation against prisoner litigants to go unchecked.
American prisons are beset by a culture of retaliation. (11) In the prison context, this translates to a pattern in which officials punish prisoners who file grievances protesting the conditions of their confinement or exposing the behaviors of their jailors. (12) Retaliation against prisoners can take many forms: officials might send prisoners to solitary confinement, deny essential services, construct false weapons charges, or subject prisoners to beatings, verbal abuse, or rape, all as punishment for attempting to communicate with the world outside the prison. …