Prison Litigation Reform Act and the Constitution
The Actual Language of the Prison Litigation Reform Act
In 1996, Congress passed the Prison Litigation Reform Act because so many inmates filed lawsuits. The rules in the PLRA are a serious response to a serious problem. They want you to follow these rules to get a court to read your complaint.
Among the rules you need to know:
1) You must “exhaust administrative remedies.” That means following the State requirement that you
- first talk with prison unit guards or officials,
- then write a specific Step 1 and get a reply,
- then write a specific Step 2 explaining why the first decision was wrong, get a reply, and
- finally, follow all the time limits when you finally file with the correct court.
2) Generally, you cannot file a suit for money damages for a mental or emotional injury unless you also have a provable physical injury too. You can file to ask that they change the prison policy. Research!
3) You will pay court filing fees taken monthly from your accounts.
4) Strikes: Let’s say you have already filed three suits that the court said were without merit (frivolous, malicious, no basis in law). The PLRA says you will not be able to file again without paying the full court cost up front. The only exception is “imminent danger of serious physical injury.” Research!
5) Good time: The PLRA can allow the prison to take away good time
- if you file a claim that is merely malicious, or
- if your stated problem isn’t against the law, or
- if you file it solely to harass, or
- if you give false information.
United States laws require you to follow steps for complaining about prison conditions. The laws also require you to follow steps if you choose to take your complaints to court. All of those steps begin with a grievance.
- if you believe your life is in danger or that you are not safe
- if you are being threatened by another inmate or an employee
- if you need medical attention
- if you are being physically or sexually abused
- if the conditions in your unit are inhumane (too hot, too cold, unsanitary, etc.)
- if you try to file a grievance but get harassed or threatened about filing
- if your prison unit is violating the rules of your prison system (state or federal)
- if your personal property has been lost or damaged
- if you are having trouble getting your complaint to the court system.
Discussion of Prison Litigation Reform Act
Point by point discussion by attorney John Boston (192 pp)
ACLU 4-point summary, last update 2002
Columbia Human Rights Law Review students detail the PLRA (113 pp) (8th ed., 2009)
Law professor explains 4 S. Ct. cases.
84 The Prison Journal, 290-316 (2004)
1st Amendment claim:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
8th Amendment claim:
Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
14th Amendment claim—due process:
No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State derive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.