Amid increasing prison populations and a sharp rise in prisoner lawsuits in federal courts, Congress passed the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (PLRA). The PLRA placed several restrictions on prisoners' ability to file civil rights lawsuits based on the conditions of their confinement.
Among other things, the federal law sought to:
- Reduce frivolous litigation
- Give corrections officials the ability to remedy problems before litigation
- Lighten the caseload for courts handling prisoner litigation
In practice, the PLRA's enactment makes it harder for inmates to challenge conditions of confinement and other grievances in federal court. The PLRA created a framework of procedural steps that prisoners must follow exactly.
Prisoners need to understand the PLRA and the criminal justice system. Failing to comply with its requirements, which place extra burdens on prisoners that other litigants don't face, could doom any efforts to seek recourse for civil rights violations.
Prison Litigation Reform Act: The Exhaustion Requirement
Perhaps the most important aspect of the PLRA is its strict exhaustion requirement. Specifically, 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a) states:
"No action shall be brought with respect to prison conditions ... by a prisoner confined in any jail, prison, or other correctional facility until such administrative remedies as are available are exhausted."
In other words, a prisoner must exhaust their claims administratively before filing a civil rights lawsuit. Failure to do so can result in the court dismissing the case.
The PLRA does not specify what administrative remedies states must provide to inmates. Each state can create its own administrative process for handling prisoner complaints. But no matter what system states employ, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that prisoners must comply with those procedures before filing suit.
The PLRA also limits the court's ability to give prospective relief. In other words, it makes it far more difficult for a court to change a prison's policies. The PLRA states that prospective relief “shall extend no further than necessary" to correct any violation. If a court grants such relief, it must be “narrowly drawn" and the “least intrusive means" of correcting the violation. All this means that prisoners may find it challenging to change prison policy by seeking a court order.
Types of Claims
A prisoner can file civil actions in federal court under the PLRA. Among others, they may file lawsuits regarding:
- Dangerous conditions of confinement
- Physical injuries caused by corrections officers or others
- Mental or emotional injuries, so long as the plaintiff meets the physical injury requirement
- Requests for injunctive relief
- Temporary restraining orders
- A violation of their constitutional rights
Prisoners cannot file a lawsuit for emotional injuries unless they show they also sustained a personal injury. A court may dismiss a claim for monetary damages against a defendant with immunity from lawsuits.
How to File an Administrative Claim
Each state sets its own administrative remedies for prisoners to file a claim. Thus, prisoners should check their state's laws and their prison's grievance procedure if they intend to file a claim.
Generally, a prisoner must file a grievance with prison officials. This typically involves providing a written complaint to a prison official. Then, the prisoner must exhaust the administrative remedies available.
Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies
To exhaust an administrative claim, the prisoner must pursue the administrative claim to finality. If the prison requires additional steps, the prisoner must comply with those steps.
Generally, the prisoner must exhaust each claim in their complaint. This could involve appealing each claim until a final decision is rendered. This may include an appeal to a prison warden, for example. If a prisoner does not exhaust all their claims administratively before filing a federal lawsuit, the court will most likely dismiss their claim.
Exceptions to the Exhaustion Requirement
Under the PLRA, the only exception to the exhaustion requirement is where no administrative remedies are available. This can include situations in which an inmate's appeal is lost or misplaced. A prisoner must exhaust the administrative process unless the exception applies.
Given the complexity of the PLRA, it is easy for prisoners to make mistakes when preparing a federal civil action. In particular, failing to exhaust a claim fully may doom a prisoner's claim before it begins. In addition to following all the administrative requirements, it is important to take these steps:
- Include all allegations and claims in the initial inmate appeal form (only allegations that are included in the exhaustion process can be litigated in court).
- Meet all deadlines.
- Wait for denials at lower administrative levels before submitting to the next level of review.
- Maintain copies of everything submitted for review (this helps if your appeals are lost or misplaced).
- Ensure that your complaint states claims for relief.
Because of the complex nature of PLRA lawsuits and administrative remedies, consider contacting a civil rights attorney in your state.
Filing Fees and Strikes
The PLRA requires prisoners filing civil actions to pay court filing fees in full (28 U.S.C. 1915(b)). However, courts will allow indigent prisoners to pay the fee in installments over time if they file in forma pauperis. This term means the prisoner lacks the resources to pay the full filing fee. The installment payment plan is based on the amount of money in the prisoner's account.
However, under the PLRA, courts can strip a prisoner of their in forma pauperis status. A prisoner earns one strike each time they file a case that the judiciary dismisses. Once the prisoner earns three strikes, they must pay the full filing fee upfront for each subsequent lawsuit. They are no longer eligible for the full installment waiver.
If the prisoner shows they are in imminent danger of serious physical injury, the court may provide an exception to the three strikes rule.
If a prisoner wins their PLRA lawsuit, the amount of attorney's fees they can recover is limited. According to the PLRA, the attorney's fees, if any, must be proportional to the court-ordered relief. Critics of the PLRA argue that this fee limitation may discourage some attorneys from taking on PLRA cases.
Speak With an Attorney About Your Prison Rights
Prisoners have fewer rights and protections under the law, but the U.S. Constitution still applies within prison walls. The PLRA puts extra hurdles in place for prisoners, but there are ways you can use them to your advantage.
If you're looking for representation based on a complaint of mistreatment, you'll want to contact an attorney specializing in civil rights as soon as possible. An experienced attorney can provide valuable legal advice on the following:
- General information regarding criminal law
- Federal and state laws relevant to your case
- The differences between federal and state prisons
- The PLRA, consent decrees, and settlement agreements
- A defense and litigation strategy for your district court case
Contact a criminal defense attorney near you if you are facing criminal charges.