Rape Survivor's Quest for Justice Leads to the U.S. Supreme Court
For survivors of prisoner rape, seeking justice for the abuses they have endured is exceptionally difficult. Today, when the U.S. Supreme Court considers the case of Ortiz v. Jordan, it is only the second prisoner rape case ever to be heard by the Court. In the landmark 1994 case Farmer v. Brennan, the Court acknowledged that rape in detention may amount to cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution.
Michelle Ortiz was sexually assaulted by an officer while incarcerated at the Ohio Reformatory for Women. After courageously reporting the abuse, Michelle suffered repeated retaliation by other corrections officials. A jury found that the retaliating officers violated Michelle's civil rights and awarded her monetary damages. An appeals court overturned the jury's award, concluding that the officers were immune to being sued. The Supreme Court will review whether this reversal of a jury verdict was proper.
Michelle's case is extraordinary in that she was able to get into court at all. The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) of 1996 makes it enormously difficult for incarcerated individuals to have constitutional violations heard in court, even in the most egregious cases of rape by prison officials. The PLRA imposes harsh procedural requirements on incarcerated rape survivors, such as obliging them to complain to a specific officer even if that officer was involved in the abuse. Many corrections systems also demand that rape victims file complaints within days of an assault, ignoring the fact that emotional trauma -- and, in many cases, physical injuries -- make such deadlines entirely unrealistic. Worse still, the PLRA requires proof of a physical injury in order to seek monetary damages and, shockingly, courts have held that some forms of sexual abuse do not amount to a physical injury.
JDI is at the forefront of efforts to reform the PLRA and ensure that survivors of sexual abuse behind bars are able to seek justice. As the Supreme Court said in Farmer v. Brennan, sexual abuse "is simply not 'part of the penalty' that criminal offenders pay for their offenses against society."