NEW YORK (AP) — As longtime chairman of the American Conservative Union, David Keene seems an unlikely ally of the American Civil Liberties Union in a prisoners-rights campaign. But this cause is personal.
Keene's son, also named David, is serving time in a federal prison for firearms offenses arising from a 2002 road-rage incident. The son's stymied efforts to lodge complaints have prompted the father to join a liberal-dominated coalition seeking to ease a tough law restricting inmates' ability to file lawsuits.
Along with such advocacy groups as the ACLU, Human Rights Watch and the Open Society Institute, Keene is urging revision of the Prison Litigation Reform Act that Congress enacted in 1996 to curtail frivolous lawsuits by state and federal prisoners.
"The act accomplished part of its purpose, but I don't think the authors foresaw the unintended consequences," the elder Keene said in a telephone interview from his Washington, D.C., office. "It's Congress' job to go back and fix it."
Backers of the act, known as the PLRA, often cited a case in which an inmate sued because he received a jar of crunchy peanut butter instead of the creamy variety he preferred.
The act's impact is dramatic; prisoner lawsuits in federal courts have dropped from roughly 41,000 in 1995 to less than 25,000 annually even while the inmate population surged from 1.5 million to more than 2 million. But critics say many legitimate cases have been blocked — including numerous grievances involving rape and violations of religious freedom.
"It's important to recognize what an extraordinary piece of legislation this is," said David Fathi, director of U.S. programs for Human Rights Watch. "It takes an unpopular, politically powerless group and makes it more difficult for them, and only them, to protect their constitutional rights."