How the Prison Litigation Reform Act Blocks Justice for Prisoners
Legislation signed by Bill Clinton makes it nearly impossible for people in prison to have their cases heard in court.
C. Dreams May 08, 2023
In 2014, Abu Huraira, 45, was transferred to Georgia State Prison after 16 years in the custody of the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC). On his arrival, prison officials failed to give him an initial medical screening, violating GDC policy. Because of that, Huraira went weeks without receiving medication for his chronic pain or dental care for a decaying tooth, despite submitting multiple requests to medical staff at the prison. Additionally, prison officials forced Huraira, a Muslim, to shave his beard using unsanitized clippers, exposing him to the risk of bloodborne diseases, and denied him access to Islamic prayer services, according to a lawsuit he later filed in federal court.
When Huraira sued GDC for violating his rights to medical care and religious liberty, GDC attorneys didn’t dispute the substance of his allegations. Instead, they argued that he had no right to sue at all because he had not filed a formal grievance with prison authorities. Even though Huraira told the court that corrections officers had refused to allow him to file a grievance, a federal judge ruled in GDC’s favor and dismissed Huraira’s lawsuit on the grounds that he had “failed to exhaust administrative remedies.”
All of this was possible thanks to a little-known federal law called the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA). Signed into law in 1996 by President Bill Clinton, the PLRA sought to tamp down on “frivolous” lawsuits filed by prisoners by making it easier for courts to dismiss cases before they ever went to trial. The law also capped the amount of damages prisoners could collect from prison officials who violated their constitutional rights, discouraging professional attorneys from taking on prisoners’ cases.
As a result, the PLRA has made it virtually impossible for prisoners to hold corrections officials accountable for civil rights violations like excessive force or inadequate medical care. Without judicial oversight, corrections officials act with impunity because they rarely face consequences for violating prisoners’ rights.
Congress passed the PLRA amid a massive expansion of the prison system in the 1980s and 1990s. Between 1980 and 1996, when the PLRA became law, the number of people incarcerated in the United States more than tripled. With this increase in prison populations came an increase in litigation by prisoners challenging violations of their constitutional rights. Researchers at the Prison Policy Initiative found that the number of lawsuits filed by prisoners increased from 13,000 in 1980 to 39,000 in 1995, the year before Congress enacted the PLRA.
Supporters of the PLRA from both parties claimed that prisoner litigation was clogging up the federal court system. In a speech in favor of the legislation, Democratic Senator Harry Reid told Congress about supposedly “ridiculous” lawsuits filed by prisoners, such as one brought by a Nebraska prisoner who “thinks he is a woman trapped in a man’s body … I kind of wish I was making this up. I mean, can you imagine?” (Federal courts have ruled that corrections officials may not discriminate against transgender prisoners, so this lawsuit may not have been as “ridiculous” as Senator Reid imagined.)
“Have we become more concerned about the rights of the criminals than we have the rights of society?” Senator Reid said. “Our attorneys should be spending more time prosecuting criminals, not defending frivolous lawsuits brought by them.”
Lawmakers believed that prison litigation was a larger problem than the constitutional violations that prisoners’ lawsuits sought to address. To tamp down the growing number of cases, the PLRA imposed strict requirements on when and how prisoners could file lawsuits and limited the type of relief that prisoners could seek in civil rights cases.
For example, the PLRA severely limits how much and when prisoners may collect for punitive damages, which can be a significant barrier to seeking justice for civil rights violations. The most unjust restriction, however, was the provision that prisoners exhaust all available administrative remedies before they can file a lawsuit in federal court. This means that prisoners must first file a grievance with their prison’s internal grievance system before they can file a lawsuit in federal court. This requirement can be particularly challenging for prisoners, who may not have access to legal resources and may not be aware of the complex administrative processes they must navigate before they can file a lawsuit.
Almost immediately, the PLRA had its intended effect. According to a 2002 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the number of lawsuits filed by state and federal prisoners in federal courts fell by 39 percent between 1995 and 2000, which the report attributed in part to the PLRA’s restrictions on prisoner litigation. The trend has continued in recent years. In 2021, the number of civil rights suits filed by prisoners reached a 35-year low, according to a report published with Prison Policy Initiative by law professor Margo Schlanger and colleagues at Northwestern University and the University of Michigan.
In addition to reducing the number of lawsuits prisoners file, the PLRA has made it even more difficult for incarcerated people to find legal representation. Most prisoners cannot afford to hire an attorney and must rely on pro bono legal services, which are often scarce and stretched beyond capacity. Additionally, the PLRA’s limitations on attorney’s fees in prisoner litigation make it less financially feasible for attorneys to take on prisoners’ cases. As a result, many prisoners end up representing themselves in court, a practice known as “pro se” litigation.
Without professional legal representation, it is even more difficult for prisoners to prevail in their lawsuits. Pro se litigants often lack the legal expertise and resources necessary to effectively navigate the legal system, including the complex procedural rules governing litigation. As a result, pro se litigation is often unsuccessful, with many cases being dismissed on procedural grounds or failing to meet the evidentiary standards required to prove a civil rights violation. Compounding matters, many prisoners already struggle with literacy and basic adult education, making the difficult task of single-handedly litigating a civil action that much harder.
Among all of the provisions in the PLRA, the exhaustion requirement has had perhaps the most devastating effect on prisoners’ ability to seek legal redress through the courts. As Huraira’s case shows, prisoners often cannot file grievances without fear of retaliation from prison officials, and the complex, often confusing procedures for filing grievances and appealing decisions allow prison officials to stonewall prisoner litigation and their constitutional rights in several ways.
Some require grievances to be filed within a very short period, which is problematic for those without legal assistance or experiencing physical/mental health issues. Officials may also delay or ignore grievances, reject them on procedural grounds, or provide inadequate responses that fail to address civil rights violations. Furthermore, retaliation against prisoners who file grievances is not uncommon and can deter others from seeking redress. Retaliation can include physical violence, transfer to more restrictive facilities, or denial of privileges.
Because of these obstacles and dangers, exhausting one’s remedies is easier said than done, as Huraira experienced firsthand. In pleadings filed in federal court, Huraira explained how prison officials denied him the appropriate grievance forms in an attempt to nullify his claims for failure to grieve them within 10 days. (In a response filed with the court, prison officials disputed Huraira’s claim that they had denied him access to grievance forms.)
When he finally managed to submit grievances, prison officials rejected them because they listed several claims alleging a violation. GDC policy requires that each grievance state only one claim. Additionally, as more issues continued to arise, transpiring quickly over a several-week period, prison officials barred Huraira from submitting additional grievances because GDC policy permitted only two active grievances at a given time. Huraira was told he would have to drop former grievances, essentially waiving any alleged constitutional violations.
All together, the requirements of the PLRA have made it virtually impossible for prisoners to hold corrections officials accountable for civil rights violations, says Emily Shelton, founder and director of Ignite Justice, a criminal justice and prison conditions reform organization.
“Because of the PLRA, prison officials are able to get away with great injustices. The PLRA makes it nearly impossible for incarcerated people to hold prison officials accountable, even when their very lives are in jeopardy,” said Shelton. “What type of system are we promoting, if we value officials’ careers over the integrity of the system and over safe conditions in which prisoners can serve out their sentences?”
Arika Rodriguez, a prison abolition advocate and theorist, added, “The PLRA is part of a broader trend of dehumanizing incarcerated people and treating them as less than human. It assumes that prisoners are inherently litigious and that they will file frivolous lawsuits at the drop of a hat. This kind of thinking is not only inaccurate, but it is also deeply inhumane.”
In recent months, Congress has begun to reckon with the consequences of the PLRA. In December, an extensive investigation led by Senator Jon Ossoff on the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations found “that the BOP is failing systemically to prevent, detect, and address sexual abuse of prisoners by its own employees,” including top officials. This report followed an earlier investigation by Senator Ossoff that uncovered horrific conditions at a BOP detention center in Atlanta, where prisoners were “denied proper nutrition, access to clean drinking water, and hygiene products; lacked access to medical care; endured months of lockdowns with limited or no access to the outdoors or basic services; and had rats and roaches in their food and cells.”
In April, Senator Ossoff and a bipartisan group of legislators introduced a bill to create an independent oversight body to monitor abuses at federal prisons. While this is a step in the right direction, it does little to address abuses at state and local facilities, which hold the majority of incarcerated people in the United States.
To help restore accountability and oversight to the prison system, we need to reform the PLRA or repeal it outright. The Biden administration and Congress could work to eliminate the exhaustion requirement entirely, revise the standard for evaluating whether a case is frivolous, or provide more robust funding for legal assistance programs. Additionally, they could work to expand access to legal assistance for incarcerated individuals by removing barriers to access and providing more resources for legal aid organizations.
Finally, if lawmakers really want to reduce prison litigation, they should reduce the number of people in prison, such as by eliminating mandatory minimum sentences, expanding diversion programs for nonviolent offenders, or incentivizing businesses and state and local policymakers toward investing in alternatives to incarceration. These reforms could help address many of the issues related to the PLRA by reducing the number of people subject to its provisions and ultimately improving the lives of those impacted by the criminal legal system.
Rodriguez argues that, ultimately, the PLRA needs to be abolished altogether. “The PLRA is an affront to basic human rights and dignity. We need to move away from punitive systems of justice that are focused on retribution and towards restorative systems that prioritize healing and accountability. This means investing in communities and alternatives to incarceration, and dismantling the prison industrial complex as we know it.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the PLRA prohibits the collection of punitive damages by prisoners. The law severely limits, but does not entirely prohibit, the recovery of such punitive damages.
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