Report on the Prison Litigation Reform Act: What Have the Courts Decided so Far?

Published date01 September 2004
AuthorBarbara Belbot
Date01 September 2004
Subject MatterArticles
10.1177/0032885504268177THE PRISON JOURNAL / September 2004Belbot / REPORT ON THE PLRA
University of Houston–Downtown
The Prison Litigation Reform Act was passed by Congress in 1996. It had a two-fold
purpose: reduce the amount of prisoner litigation and curtail the involvement of the
federal courts in the operations of state prison systems. Since its passage, the U.S.
Supreme Court and numerouslower federal courts have had the opportunity to inter-
pretseveral of its complicated and controversial provisions. Thisarticle looks at what
the courts have decided thus far and predicts future court opinions.
Keywords: prisoner litigation; prisoners’ legal rights; Prison Litigation
Reform Act (PLRA)
The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) was enacted in 1996. Members
of Congress who opposed the legislation raised constitutional issues during
debate on the bill (Butler, 1999). After its passage, many opponents contin-
ued to predict that some PLRA provisions would be held invalid (Decker,
1997; Herman, 1998). Nearly 6 years later, four U.S. Supreme Court cases
have upheld the constitutionality of several of the PLRA’s provisions and
struck down none. Dozens of district and circuit court cases have defended
various provisions against constitutional challenge, whereas very few courts
have ruled against the act (Bennett & Del Carmen 1997; Branham, 2001a,
2001b). Much has been written about the phenomenal growth in inmate liti-
gation since Cooper v. Pate abandoned the hands-off policy and opened the
floodgates to the federal courts in 1964. There has been extensive criticismof
the activist role many federal judges adopted as prison reform lawsuits made
their way through the court system. The PLRA responded to two of Con-
gress’s concerns: (a) inmates who were perceived as clogging up the courts
and costing taxpayers large amounts of money with frequently frivolous liti-
gation and (b) federal judges who intervened in the operation of state prison
systems; ordered extensive, detailed, and costly reforms; and monitored
THE PRISON JOURNAL, Vol. 84 No. 3, September 2004 290-316
DOI: 10.1177/0032885504268177
© 2004 Sage Publications
compliance with court orders for often more than a decade. How much these
related but distinct concerns merged in the legislators’minds when they con-
sidered the PLRA is not clear. It is clear that the PLRA has imposed signifi-
cant restrictions on both prisoner litigants and federal judges. Six years later,
it is also clear that courts will not take the PLRA to task.
This article reviews court cases that have considered the most important
PLRA provisions. It is divided, like the act itself, into two sections. The first
part looks at cases that have interpreted those parts of the statute aimed at
reducing the amount of prisoner litigation. Three of the four Supreme Court
decisions about the PLRA address the statute’s inmate lawsuitreduction pro-
visions. The second part of the article examines court cases that have inter-
preted the PLRA’s attempts to curtail federal court intervention in state pris-
ons. One Supreme Court case has been decided in this area. Federal courts of
appeal cases are discussed throughout. Legal commentary is sprinkled where
appropriate and most helpful. The Supreme Court has not resolved all the
constitutional questions about the PLRA. It has, however, settled severalkey
issues, and through the four cases it has decided, the Court has indicated its
general stance toward the statute. There is little or no reason for opponents of
the PLRA to anticipate that the courts will act to reduce the serious
limitations the act imposes.
The PLRA includes several provisions that attempt to reduce the number
of inmate lawsuits that impose financial and other restrictions on prisoner-
plaintiffs thereby making it more difficult for them to file lawsuits under
§1983. Congress passed these provisions in response to what it perceived to
be a crisis in the federal courts created in part by the large number of inmate
lawsuits, many of which are deemed frivolous and which also impose a
severe burden on the state agencies that must defend them. According to
Herman (1998), the legislative history of the PLRA indicates that concern
about frivolous lawsuits dominated Congress’s consideration of the statute.
Stories about frivolous legal claims like the one filed by an inmate demand-
ing chunky peanut butter abound. Although there was serious opposition to
the bill, the PLRA was passed without a great deal of debate and in a hasty
fashion as a rider to an appropriations bill and without a Judiciary Committee
Report (Butler, 1999; Herman, 1998; Levy, 2000).
This part of the article reviews the most current case law interpreting the
PLRA provisions that impose new restrictions on litigant prisoners including
(a) the exhaustion of administrative remedies requirement, (b) the prohibi-
tion on recovery for claims of emotional injury only, (c) changes in the avail-

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