The Legacy of the Prison Litigation Reform Act

As Hurricane Florence loomed over the Carolinas, stories broke of South Carolina prisons failing to evacuate prisoners near the coast, despite state officials ordering evacuation of all residents. South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster stated at a news conference, “We’re not going to gamble with the lives of the people of South Carolina. Not a one.” Not a one. Perhaps Governor McMaster did not count incarcerated individuals as part of the “people” of South Carolina. Although the governor claimed this was a safer solution and would curtail prison escapes, neighboring states began to evacuate prisoners. Past natural disasters have been especially unbearable for those who are incarcerated. For example, Hurricane Harvey in Houston caused food shortages and sewage flooding in area prisons. Prisoners even went without drinking water as their cells flooded with water. During Hurricane Katrina, victims in prisons were confined to their cells without food or drink. A lack of clean drinking water is not unheard of in state prisons—natural disasters merely heighten existing problems.

The way the state treat prisoners during natural disasters is just one example of the inhumanity of state prison systems.. In Massachusetts, prisons refuse to provide clean drinking water to incarcerated individuals. Sampling of water within Massachusetts prisons shows elevated levels of manganese, which can cause neurological disorders. Reports have surfaced, however, showing that they do provide clean drinking water to some within the prison––notably, the service dogs in training. “Dogs are provided bottled water, but the human inmates are not,” reported a council of incarcerated individuals in a prison in Norfolk, Massachusetts. After a member of the council spoke out against this injustice, he was placed in solitary confinement (or “segregation” as the prison refers to it) for a month. The Department of Corrections cites a lack of budget to explain their continued failure to fix the water systems at Norfolk and other Massachusetts prisons. As the Norfolk council practiced (and is still practicing!) activism in advocating for clean drinking water, those inside and outside of prisons took part in nationwide strikes and protests demanding better conditions as well an end to the prison slavery system of work without pay.

These incidents of cruelty and lack of humane conditions leave one to wonder why prison conditions are exceptionally deplorable in the U.S. It is no coincidence. The blame might lie with congress and its efforts to limit prisoners’ ability to claim better conditions. In 1996, Congress passed legislation making it harder for incarcerated individuals to bring claims against the state. For many years, advocates have pointed to this piece of legislation, the Prison Litigation Reform Act, or P.L.R.A., a tool stripping prisoners of their rights. The nationwide prison strike’s list of demands includes overturning the P.L.R.A. The P.L.R.A. creates hurdles to litigation. In creating extra hurdles for those in prison, Congress did not account for the already extreme burdens prisoners face. Mental health problems affect about half of those incarcerated. Current prison conditions––lack of clean water, failure to evacuate during natural disasters, unpaid labor––should be examined within the context of the P.L.R.A.

More specifically, the P.L.R.A. first requires “exhaustion.” Exhaustion refers to the requirement that a party first file a complaint through the prison’s grievance procedure before filing a complaint in court. The exhaustion requirement may not end there, however. If the prison has additional procedures in place, such as appeals of initial grievance decisions, those hoping to file in court must follow each of these steps first. Not only does the P.L.R.A. make a potential plaintiff exhaust every available administrative remedy, but it also requires exhaustion for “with respect to each claim you want to raise, and each defendant you want to name.” These procedures both slow the process down and place a greater burden on an already incredibly marginalized community, which is less likely to have complete information about these administrative steps. If the party does not meet the exhaustion requirement, the claim will be dismissed.  

Second, filing fees must be paid in full. This payment scheme places a large financial burden––“20% of the greater of the prisoner’s average balance or the average deposits to the account for the preceding six months”––on prisoners. Separately, this requires cooperation from the prison, which can pose another obstacle, because the prison administration must provide information for the claim to succeed. Third, the statute imposes a “three strikes” rule, which allows a judge to dismiss claims from a prisoner by describing them as frivolous or inadequate. After these three strikes, the prisoner can no longer file complaints in the court without paying a fee up-front. Finally, the statute requires physical injury, as opposed to emotional or mental injury, to obtain money damages.

These requirements create a tall hurdle. In general, however, complaints from incarcerated persons are dismissed for minor errors, not taking into account the difficulties of filing complaints from prison. For example, Margo Schlanger, a “leading authority on the P.L.R.A.,” tracks individual cases, and has seen courts dismiss cases for minor errors, such as writing in red ink or attaching medical records to a complaint.

Members of Congress and the general public may hear about a nationwide prison strike, as well as reports of prison conditions, and wonder how the system allows these things to happen. For an answer, we can look to the Prison Litigation Reform Act. The public and members of Congress viewed this act as a step forward that prevented courts from becoming bogged down by pro se litigants. As Senator Orrin Hatch breaks away from many members of his party to advocate for reform to the criminal legal system, the public should remember his support of the P.L.R.A. The P.L.R.A. will “quickly identify the viable prisoner claims and weed out the meritless chaff,” he stated in support of the bill.

These conditions, which place prisoners in conditions in which hurricanes flood their cells, or force them to drink unclean water, did not arrive by mere accident. The conditions of the prison system stem from many causes, such as the privatization of prisons, racist disregard for a population where men of color are overrepresented, and the general dehumanization of those society incarcerates. As the nationwide prison strike shows us, however, one piece of legislation, the Prison Litigation Reform Act, is particularly emblematic of the disenfranchisement of incarcerated individuals.

Written by

Regina is a 3L at HLS from Owensboro, Kentucky. She is interested in racial justice, prisoners' rights, immigration, gender equality, and economic justice. She spent her 1L summer at MALDEF and 2L summer NAACP LDF.

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