Terri LeClercq and her 16-year-old daughter were arrested in 1998 during a protest against the School of the Americas. Some of the protesters with whom they were arrested were sentenced to six months in federal prison. Their subsequent letters to LeClercq described inmates who suffered serious human rights abuses, such as denial of access to basic medication.
LeClercq decided to write a graphic novel regarding when and how to file prison grievances. The Prison Litigation Reform Act, enacted in 1996, comprises a number of provisions of the U.S. Code that constrain and discourage litigation by prisoners. It requires that in order to be heard, each claim raised in a lawsuit by a prisoner must have been properly exhausted – that is, sufficiently recognizable in a timely grievance to give prison officials notice as to the incident or incidents to which the prisoner objected.
The practical result of the “proper exhaustion” requirement, combined with the very short deadlines of most prison grievance systems, is that many prisoners are unable to correct their administrative filings when they discover mistakes or develop a better understanding of how to articulate their claims. Alternatively, some prisoners write letters to prison superintendents or other highly placed officials instead of filing grievances; but this generally doesn’t meet the “proper exhaustion” requirement. Prisoners who get their problems solved informally, without needing to file grievances, also may have failed to properly exhaust their administrative remedies.
To help inmates file grievances that protect their rights to bring lawsuits, buy a copy of LeClercq’s $10 book and donate it to an inmate or a jail or prison library. (Before mailing a copy to a jail or prison library, however, people are encouraged to contact the jail or prison to determine whether the book will be accepted.)