Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) : Myths and Facts

Myth: The rise in prisoner lawsuits in the 1990’s that prompted the passage of the PLRA was due to a large increase in prisoners’ litigious ness.

Fact: The PLRA was passed after an enormous increase in the amount of prisoner civil rights litigation.  But that increase was not caused by some large or sustained increase in prisoners’ litigious ness.  Rather, the rise of prisoner filings was directly attributable to the most rapid rise of prison and jail populations that had ever taken place in the US. The number of federal civil rights cases filed by prisoners increased from 16,000 in 1981 to 39,000 in 1995.  But over the same period the rate of inmate filings actually decreased, from 29 per 1000 prisoners to 25 per 1000 prisoners.

Myth: Prisoners file more lawsuits than anyone else.

Fact: According to a quantitative academic study of prisoner litigation, inmates are no more litigious, on average, than anyone else.  In 1995, just prior to the PLRA's passage, the overall rate of lawsuits brought by the entire U.S. population in state courts of general jurisdiction and in federal district courts was 56 per 1000 people; the number of federal civil rights actions brought by prisoners was 25 per 1000 prisoners.

Myth: The PLRA has improved the quality of prisoner lawsuits, and under the PLRA, claims involving serious rights violations are given a fair chance to succeed

Fact: Although the quantity of litigation in federal court by prisoners has declined since passage of the PLRA, the legislation has not resulted in a relative increase in meritorious claims.  In 1995, at the pre-PLRA peak, 1.6 million prisoners filed about 40,000 federal civil rights actions.  In 2005, 2.2 million prisoners filed under 25,000 actions.  If the PLRA were succeeding in its goal of filtering out non-meritorious cases, one would expect that prisoners in this reduced pool of litigation would succeed more often.  Yet in fact the opposite is true: since 1996, prisoners’ civil rights cases have fared even worse in the federal courts.  Defendants have been winning more cases pretrial and settling fewer cases.  This indicates that the PLRA has made meritorious cases more difficult to file and more difficult to win.

Indeed, the PLRA provision barring recovery for emotional and mental injury in the absence of physical injury has been held to render damages unavailable for proven violations of religious freedom, due process, free speech, and other fundamental rights.  The administrative exhaustion provisions have barred recovery for prisoners (including pretrial and juvenile detainees) with legitimate and serious cases, because they failed to comply with some formal aspect of a facility’s grievance procedure—even if their complaint was timely and fully set forward before the correct administrators.

The PLRA is preventing countless grave claims from reaching the courts—including claims of physical and sexual abuse, indifference to inmate on inmate rape, gross mistreatment of confined juveniles, and markedly deficient medical and mental health treatment.  This effectively prevents courts from exercising their role of protecting constitutional rights.

Myth: The PLRA’s requirement that prisoners exhaust administrative remedies before filing lawsuits is a reasonable procedural measure that is easy for prisoners to comply with.

Fact: The exhaustion requirement has proved to be a formidable barrier to the courts as prisoners are often unable to comply with the extremely tight deadlines and baffling maze of rules for internal grievance procedures; a single misstep forever bars even the most meritorious claim from entering the judicial system.  It is entirely reasonable to ensure prison officials have an opportunity to respond to and resolve prisoners’ grievances before a court steps in.  It is not reasonable, however, to deny prisoners access to the courts and relief from mistreatment by those officials simply because of a missed prison filing deadline.

Myth: The PLRA has not adversely impacted prison conditions.

Fact: In the 1990s, over 1,200 local prison and jail systems, including several in major urban areas, were under federal court supervision for failure to maintain humane conditions in their facilities.  Under the PLRA, this court supervision automatically terminates upon the motion of the prison system unless the court makes detailed factual findings of a current and ongoing constitutional violation.   If the court does not step in quickly, the supervision automatically ends, even if the abuses are still ongoing.  These provisions have drastically reduced the ability of the courts to ensure humane conditions in local prisons.

Myth: The PLRA does not apply to juveniles.

Fact:  The PLRA currently applies to juveniles confined in juvenile detention and correctional facilities.  Juveniles are particularly vulnerable to abuse in facilities, and few have the ability to successfully navigate their facility’s grievance procedure on their own.  In one recent case, a youth was repeatedly raped in juvenile facilities yet the court dismissed his civil rights claim because neither he nor his mother had filed formal administrative grievances. The mother had contacted many government officials in an effort to protect her son, but those efforts did not comply with the technical requirements of the grievance process.  

Conclusion: It is time to reevaluate the PLRA and repair its weaknesses.  Over a decade of experience with the PLRA demonstrates that the law denies incarcerated adults and youth meaningful access to the courts.  Congress expressly stated that the PLRA would not undermine the rights of prisoners, but its provisions have had precisely this effect.  As time goes on and rights abuses mount, revision of the PLRA becomes even more urgent.  Given the PLRA’s failure to ensure that the basic rights of prisoners are protected, Congress must reassess and mend the law so that it comports with this country’s principles of justice.