Summary of the Problem: The PLRA was intended to stem frivolous prisoner lawsuits. Too often, however, it denies justice to victims of rape, assault, religious restrictions, and other constitutional violations in prisons and jails. When prisoners fail to file the right paperwork, or if their injuries are deemed insufficiently "physical," their claims may be-and usually are-dismissed. During a 1995 hearing prior to the PLRA's passage, its chief sponsor, Senator Orrin Hatch, assured the Congress that "I do not want to prevent inmates from raising legitimate claims. This legislation will not prevent those claims from being raised." It's become clear, however, that the PLRA does just that.
Over a decade of experience has shown that the PLRA's preliminary screening requirement is sufficient to fulfill the legislation's purpose. By requiring courts to summarily dismiss prisoner cases that are frivolous, malicious, or fail to state a legal claim, this provision has greatly reduced the burden on courts posed by prisoner cases that are not meritorious. However, other provisions of the PLRA must be amended or repealed in order to restore the rule of law to prisons and jails so that people, including children, can have their meritorious constitutional claims heard in court.
Executive: Supporting role
Legislative Changes: Stand-alone legislation (or these provisions tacked on to another vehicle) that includes the following:
1. Repeal PLRA provision that prohibits prisoners from bringing lawsuits for mental or emotional injury without demonstrating a "physical injury."
- Repeal 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(e)
2. Amend the requirement for exhaustion of administrative remedies to require prisoners to present their claims to responsible prison officials before filing suit, and, if they fail to do so, require the court to stay the case for up to 90 days and return those claims to prison officials to provide them the opportunity to resolve the complaint administratively.
- Amend 42. U.S.C. § 1997e(a)
3. Repeal the provisions extending the PLRA to juveniles confined in juvenile facilities.
- Amend 18 U.S.C. § 3626(g), 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(h), 1915A(c), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(h)
4. Restore judicial discretion to grant the same range of remedies in prisoners' civil rights actions that they possess in other civil rights cases.
5. Allow prisoners who prevail on civil rights claims to recover reasonable attorney's fees like others whose civil rights have been violated.
- Repeal 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(d)
6. Allow indigent prisoners whose cases are found to state a valid claim at the preliminary screening stage to pay a partial filing fee rather than the full filing fee, now $350 in district courts and $450 in appellate courts.
- Amend 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(a), (b)
7. Amend "three-strikes provision" (which requires indigent prisoners who have previously had three cases dismissed to pay the full filing fee up front, except in cases of imminent danger of serious physical harm) by limiting it to prisoners who have had 3 lawsuits or appeals dismissed as malicious within the past 5 years.
Executive Branch: Supporting role
Legislative Branch: Senate and House Judiciary Committees
Legislative Branch: The PLRA was passed in 1996 as Title VII of the FY 1996 appropriations act for the Departments of Commerce, Justice, State and related agencies. Its major supporters were state Attorneys General (including Rep. Dan Lungren, California's then AG) and Senators Hatch, Robert Dole, Phil Graham, and Jon Kyl. Senators Edward Kennedy, Paul Simon, and Joseph Biden were its most vocal opponents on Capitol Hill. After the law was enacted, there were no hearings or reports on the impact of the law until more than 11 years later.
Representatives Bobby Scott and John Conyers introduced the Prison Abuse Remedies Act (H.R. 4109) on November 7, 2007, which addresses many of the problems with the PLRA. There was a hearing regarding these problems in the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security on November 8, 2007.
The testimony can be found online at: http://www.savecoalition.org/latestdev.html.
There was also a hearing regarding H.R. 4109 on April 22, 2008 in the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security.
Potential Allies, Potential Opposition, and Public Opinion:
- Broad, bipartisan coalition that includes numerous advocacy organizations (HRW, Sentencing Project, United Methodist Church, New York Legal Aid Prisoners Rights Project, Center for Community Alternatives, Justice Policy Institute, Prison Legal News, International CURE, Virginia CURE, etc.)
- Prison Rape Elimination Commission
- Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons
- Some corrections officials
- Some prosecutors
- Faith-based organizations
- The National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG) sent a letter to Congress signed by 40 Attorneys General, arguing that the PLRA is serving its purpose to reduce frivolous litigation and has served an additional purpose of lessening the burden on courts by limiting the scope of consent decrees. It argues that to enact HR 4109 would "eviscerate" the PLRA and all of its protections for the courts, which is simply untrue. It acknowledges, however, that some minor changes may need to be made to the law.
- Marty Horn, Commissioner of the New York Department of Correction, wrote a letter to Congress stating that the PLRA makes it easier for corrections officials to do their jobs. He argues that the exhaustion provision of the PLRA helps to get internal issues resolved expeditiously and does not bar claims from court. In response, however, numerous other corrections officials have argued that the PLRA has hindered their ability to fix systemic problems within their prison/jail systems because they often require resources or court orders that result through litigation. See hearing testimony by Jeanne Woodford, former warden of San Quentin Prison and former Secretary of the California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation: http://www.savecoalition.org/pdfs/woodfordtestimonyFINAL.pdf
- Sarah Hart, Assistant Philadelphia District Attorney, and an author of the PLRA, makes very similar arguments to those included in the letter from NAAG, since she is the person who informs them about this issue. She insists that the current law is successful in fulfilling its purpose, but her written testimony submitted to the House Judiciary's Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security was very misleading in some areas. For example, she stated that the PLRA reform bill, H.R. 4109 would eliminate the PLRA's limits on consent decrees that establish prison population caps. This is absolutely untrue, however, as H.R. 4109 does not even address the PLRA's requirement of a three-judge panel for the imposition of any prison population caps and PLRA reform advocates have never called for the removal of those provisions of the law.
Public Opinion: There have been several articles and opinion pieces done about the problems with the PLRA, which can be found here: http://www.savecoalition.org/moreinfo.html
In March 2008, David Keene wrote the following op/ed about the deeply flawed PLRA for The Hill: http://thehill.com/david-keene/rule-breakers-inside-and-out-2008-03-03.html
- The American Bar Association approved a policy recommendation in February 2007 urging support for federal and state reforms to ensure that prisoners are afforded meaningful access to the judicial process to vindicate their constitutional and other legal rights and assure that they are subject to procedures applicable to the general public when bringing lawsuits. Further, the ABA specifically urges Congress to substantially amend the PLRA, consistent with those provisions outlined in this transition recommendation. The ABA's specific policy recommendation can be found online at: http://www.savecoalition.org/americanbar.html
- The Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons, a commission of criminal justice experts including corrections officials and prosecutors, conducted an inquiry into the most serious issues of safety in American corrections systems. They found that because of the PLRA, prisoners with meritorious claims have been deterred from filing suit, and federal courts have, at times, been rendered impotent in their ability to protect prisoners who are in danger and subject to abuse. As a result, they recommended reforms to the PLRA that are laid out in their report, which can be found online at: http://www.savecoalition.org/pdfs/Commission_recommendation_re_PLRA.pdf
- The National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, a delegation formed by Congress in conjunction with the passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, conducted a legal and factual study on prison sexual assaults and urges the reform of the PLRA to empower federal courts to bring attention and justice to sexual violence in prisons. Their letter to leaders in Congress can be found online at: http://www.savecoalition.org/pdfs/PREA_letter_urging_reform_PLRA.pdf
- The United States ratified the United Nations Convention Against Torture in 1994, in which "torture" is defined as any punishment that may inflict severe pain or suffering, whether mental or physical. However, under the PLRA, a prisoner must prove physical injury in order to obtain compensatory damages, meaning countless prisoners who experience unconscionable living conditions or sexual and emotional abuses do not have access to appropriate judicial remedies. The Committee Against Torture recently reviewed the United States' compliance with the treaty and found the PLRA's physical injury requirement to be an explicit violation. The Committee urges the repeal of the physical injury requirement.
For more information, read testimony by David C. Fathi, Director of U.S. Programs for Human Rights Watch: http://hrw.org/english/docs/2008/04/22/usdom18610_txt.htm
- Elizabeth Alexander, ACLU National Prison Project
- John Boston, New York Legal Aid Prisoners Rights Project
Witnesses in favor of amending the PLRA who testified at the November 2007 hearing on problems with the PLRA:
- Margo Schlanger, Washington University Law School
- David Keene, American Conservative Union
- Pat Nolan, Prison Fellowship
- Garrett Cunningham, former prisoner and rape victim
Witnesses in favor of amending the PLRA who testified at the April 2008 hearing on H.R. 4109, the Prison Abuse Remedies Act:
- Jeanne Woodford, former warden of San Quentin Prison in California, former Secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation
- Stephen Bright, Southern Center for Human Rights
- Ernie Preate, former Pennsylvania Attorney General
- Hon. John Gibbons, former Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
For Further Information: Studies written about the PLRA and inmate litigation, as well as examples of cases dismissed because of the law, can be found online at: www.savecoalition.org.