Convicted prisoners, pre-trial and pre-sentencing detainees confined to correctional facilities enjoy the same constitutional rights as those of us that are not incarcerated.[1] Unsurprisingly, individuals confined to correctional facilities, with little or nothing productive to do with their time, find ample reasons to claim they are treated poorly during confinement. As a result, and without comment on the veracity of any given claim as – certainly – many of the claims asserted by inmates are valid, incarcerated persons tend to file an incredible number of lawsuits. Because of the volume of lawsuits filed by inmates, to deter the frivolous ones, Congress passed the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1997e (“PLRA”) in 1996. One of its primary functions mandates that, prior to a lawsuit filed by an incarcerated pro se inmate moving forward – i.e. service of process on the targeted defendant(s) – the District Courts first “screen” prisoner complaints to ensure the allegations sufficiently set forth viable causes of action. 28 U.S.C. §1915(a).

If, after the District Court screens the prisoner complaint, the action is permitted to proceed, the PLRA establishes a powerful defense for institutional defendants. A necessary prerequisite to any prisoner litigation is the prisoner’s affirmative obligation to, prior to filing suit in the first instance, exhaust his or her “administrative remedies.” Sec. 1997e(a). Administrative remedies are those which are defined by the institution in which the prisoner was confined at the time the alleged constitutional violation occurred and are more commonly referred to as “grievance procedures.” What this means is, before an inmate files suit, he or she must first have attempted to resolve the claims at issue by first complying with the procedures defined and outlined in, for example, the inmate handbook for the subject institution.

Importantly, exhaustion of administrative remedies is mandatory, as the PLRA “eliminated the [district courts’] discretion to dispense with [it].” Booth v. Churner, 532 U.S. 731, 739 (2001). In the Seventh Circuit, strict adherence to the PLRA’s exhaustion requirement is mandated. Dole v. Chandler, 438 F.3d 804, 809 (7th Cir. 2006). Moreover, the PLRA requires “proper exhaustion,” meaning that a prisoner must complete the administrative review process in accordance with the applicable procedural rules, including deadlines. Woodford v. Ngo, 548 U.S. 81, 88, 93 (2006); see also, Pozo v. McCaughtry, 286 F.3d 1022, 1025 (7th Cir. 2002) (“To exhaust remedies, a prisoner must file complaints and appeals consistent with the prison administrative rules in place at the time”). All available remedies must be exhausted; they need not be plain, speedy or effective.  Booth, 532 U.S. at 739. Even when a prisoner seeks relief not available in grievance proceedings, exhaustion is a prerequisite to suit. Id. at 741. The potential effectiveness of an administrative response bears no relationship to the statutory requirement. Massey & Otten M.D. v. Helman, 196 F.3d 727, 733 (7th Cir. 2000).

The exhaustion requirement, therefore, can be the lynchpin in avoiding expensive, drawn-out prisoner litigation regardless of the merit of the claims at issue. Where a grievance procedure exists and defines the process and protocols for filing grievances – those processes and protocols must be followed regardless of whether following the same would result in any remedy to the grieving prisoner. Any inmate who fails to adhere to the procedure in place will – since the Courts lack discretion to conclude otherwise – have his or her case dismissed.

Given the foregoing, it is of utmost importance that correctional institutions maintain grievance procedures that are available to all inmates. But, beyond that, those facilities must also take care to strictly adhere to their own procedures including ensuring all inmate grievances are both addressed and preserved. It is one thing to have a procedure in place, but it is quite another to prove – since this is an affirmative defense that the defendant(s) bear the burden of proof on – in the absence of reliable record evidence.

[1] This is somewhat of an oversimplification. For example, when analyzing allegations related to the provision of healthcare to inmates, whether the inmate was a convicted prisoner versus a pretrial or presentencing detainee will determine under which constitutional provision the claims at issue are made actionable. A convicted prisoner alleging civil rights violations arising from insufficient medical care asserts those claims pursuant to the Eighth Amendment and its prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. See e.g. Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97 (1976) (holding deliberate indifference by prison personnel to a prisoner’s serious illness or injury constitutes cruel and unusual punishment contravening the Eighth Amendment). By contrast, pretrial and presentencing detainees asserting medical claims do so pursuant to their Fourteenth Amendment due process rights – at least in the Seventh Circuit. See Miranda v. County of Lake, 900 F.3d 335, 350-52 (7th Cir. 2018) (distinguishing §1983 claims raised by pretrial detainees under the Fourteenth Amendment from convicted prisoner claims raised under the Eighth Amendment.) For the purposes of this discussion, however, the distinction is immaterial.

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