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Legal Rights of Prisoners

The Prison Litigation Reform Act Of 1995

Congress added to the barriers created by the Supreme Court when it passed the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), which was signed into law by President Clinton on 26 April 1996. A very long and complex act, it has been described by one leading commentator as a "comprehensive charter of obstructions and disabilities designed to discourage prisoners from seeking legal redress" (Boston). The act contains restrictions on prisoner litigation that are not imposed on any other people who sue for violations of their rights.

A major thrust of the act limits the ability of the courts to enter injunctive relief, that is to order prison officials to do something or to stop doing something, to improve prison conditions. The act states that federal courts must not grant injunctive relief any greater than what is minimally necessary to correct the violations of law identified by the courts. In shaping the relief, the court has to give substantial weight to the impact of its relief on public safety or the operation of the criminal justice system.

The burgeoning prison populations spawned many overcrowding cases. The PLRA contains a specific provision governing release orders in overcrowding cases. No release order can be entered unless the court has previously tried a less restrictive remedy that has failed and the defendant prison officials are given a reasonable time period to comply with the orders of the court. No relief may be granted unless there is a finding that overcrowding is the primary cause of the violation of a federal right and no other relief will remedy the violation. Moreover, the named defendants or other government officials who have the responsibility to fund and operate and maintain the programs of the released prisoners or to prosecute them may intervene to oppose a release order. Accordingly, a broad variety of officials including district attorneys, local jail officials, and local politicians are eligible to participate formally in these proceedings—formidable opponents to prisoner actions.

Other limitations on the way in which courts have enforced constitutional rights in prison reform cases are contained in the PLRA. Special masters, who once played a major role in the cases, are now subject to new constraints including limitations on the hourly rate that they can be paid. Another provision provides a two-year "sunset period" on injunctive orders. Under this provision, the relief order is automatically terminated whether or not compliance has been achieved on the second anniversary of the issuance of the order unless the prisoners' attorney again proves that constitutional violations are occurring.

The act provides that no consent decree can be entered that does not comply with certain spelled-out limitations. Consent decrees that go beyond the minimum necessary to correct the violation of the federal right in the least restrictive manner cannot be approved. Parties that do reach agreements without these findings cannot have these agreements enforced by the courts. Such agreements, called "Private Settlement Agreements," can merely provide that in case of noncompliance, the plaintiff may restart the case.

The scores of existing consent decrees already entered in prison-conditions cases were subject to immediate termination unless the district court found retroactively that the stringent requirements of the act had been meet. The relief under the consent decree is automatically stayed thirty days following the filing of the motion to terminate the decree until the court rules on the motion. At the discretion of the court the thirty-day period can only be extended for an additional sixty days. This ninety-day maximum imposes an almost impossibly brief time on the district court to make findings necessary to continue the decree. If the timetable is not met, the consent decree will not be enforceable for the period needed to reach a decision.

The PLRA's far-reaching provisions, which limit the powers of the federal courts to enforce the rights of prisoners, raise numerous constitutional issues. Lower courts found one aspect of the act, the automatic stay provision, unconstitutional (United States v. Michigan, 91 F.3d 144 (6th Cir. 1996), and Hadix v. Johnson, 933 F. Supp. 1362 (W.D. Mich. 1996)). However, in an important PLRA decision, Miller v. French, 120 S.Ct 2246 (2000), the Supreme Court upheld the automatic-stay provision. Writing for the five-member majority, Justice O'Connor held that the automatic-stay provision of the PLRA did not violate the constitutional requirement of separation of powers.

Other evidence of the restrictive nature of the PLRA on prisoner suits and its deference to prison administration includes the exhaustion requirement, the "three strikes, you're out" provision, and the physical injury requirement.

Under the exhaustion requirement, inmates may not sue in federal court until they have used all administrative remedies available to them. At first blush this may not seem unfair. However, it is questionable whether, in many cases, an inmate will receive a fair and complete hearing from a potentially hostile administration. Thus, the exhaustion requirement becomes a test of endurance and delay to which no other civil rights plaintiffs are subjected.

Perhaps the most draconian provision of the PLRA is the so-called "three strikes, you're out" section which deprives an inmate of the right to litigate as a poor person (that is, the right of qualifying pro se plaintiffs to have court filing fees waived) after three previously dismissed actions. There is only one exception where the inmate is in imminent danger of physical injury. There are many reasons for dismissal of a case, beyond the fact that the claim is without merit. An inexperienced, uneducated pro se inmate plaintiff is as likely to have his case dismissed on procedural grounds of which he has little knowledge, as for legitimate legal reasons.

The PLRA also purports to limit recovery by providing that no federal civil action may be brought "for mental or emotional injury suffered in custody without a prior showing of physical injury." Physical injury itself requires proof of resulting disease or other adverse consequences. The courts have eased the harshness of this provision by holding that the physical injury provision of the PLRA only applies to actions for mental or emotional injuries and not to claims of violations of constitutional rights that inflict injuries that are neither physical nor mental or emotional.

Balanced against the restrictions of the PLRA is the Civil Rights on Institutionalized Persons Act (the CRIPA), another act of Congress passed before the PLRA but not repealed by it. The CRIPA gives the Attorney General of the United States the authority to investigate conditions in prisons and jails and file suit or intervene in a pending action if a pattern or practice of unlawful actions by prison officials is found by the Attorney General to deprive inmates of their constitutional rights. The Attorney General has delegated day-to-day responsibility for enforcement of this Act to the Special Litigation Section of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department.

This act contains none of the restrictions that the PLRA imposed on private litigation. Thus, it allows the government to be a vigorous enforcer of the constitutional rights of inmates. However, this assumes that the government is controlled by politicians who place a value on the rights of inmates and who are willing to commit resources to the enforcement of those rights.

In the last administration, the Justice Department did use its authority under the act to some extent. In fiscal year 1997, for example, the Department reported activity under the act in cases involving 164 facilities in 30 states and the District of Columbia, as well as Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Virgin Islands. However, with two million people housed in thousands of prisons and jails throughout the United States that effort, while important, is not enough to realistically monitor and enforce the rights of all inmates.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawLegal Rights of Prisoners - History Of Prisoners' Rights, The Hands-off Period, The Beginnings Of Prisoners' Rights Law—the Civil Rights Era