Prison Litigation Reform Act

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The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) is a U.S. federal law that was enacted in 1996.[citation needed] It is found in 42 U.S.C. § 1997e and states, in part, "No action shall be brought with respect to prison conditions under section 1983 of this title, or any other Federal law, by a prisoner confined in any jail, prison, or other correctional facility until such administrative remedies as are available are exhausted."[1] It also provides for summary dismissal of an action "if the court is satisfied that the action is frivolous, malicious, fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, or seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief."

42 U.S.C. § 1997e(e) states, "No Federal civil action may be brought by a prisoner confined in a jail, prison, or other correctional facility, for mental or emotional injury suffered while in custody without a prior showing of physical injury or the commission of a sexual act". The language concerning sexual acts contains a cross-reference to 18 U.S.C. § 2246 and was added by Congress in 2013 in response to complaints that prison officials could not be sued for raping prisoners if the injuries suffered by the prisoner were only mental or emotional rather than physical.


According to the Human Rights Watch, makes it much more difficult than in the past for prisoners to bring lawsuits against the government: "The debate and legislative processes leading to the passage of the PLRA were hasty, one-sided, and did not give much thought to the possible ramifications on prisoners' constitutional rights." The rise in prisoner lawsuits was blamed on prisoners filing frivolous lawsuits, rather than on the swelling prison populations and deteriorating prison conditions. In reality, prisoners were filing lawsuits at about the same rate as non-incarcerated persons.[2]

The PLRA has been interpreted to require exhaustion of prison administrative remedies even when the damages sought are not available through the institution's grievance procedure. The PLRA, while intended to conserve judicial resources, could actually waste them by requiring an inquiry into the exhaustion requirements rather than disposition on the merits. That can lead to cases being dismissed and then re-filed. The exhaustion requirement can also delay time-sensitive claims of constitutional violations, such as where the relief requested is an injunction against prison officials.[3]

Human Rights Watch notes, "If the effect of the PLRA were to selectively discourage the filing of frivolous or meritless lawsuits, as its sponsors predicted, then we would expect to find prisoners winning a larger percentage of their lawsuits after the law’s enactment than they did before. But the most comprehensive study to date shows just the opposite: since passage of the PLRA, prisoners not only are filing fewer lawsuits, but also are succeeding in a smaller proportion of the cases they do file. This strongly suggests that rather than filtering out meritless lawsuits, the PLRA has simply tilted the playing field against prisoners across the board."

HRW also notes, "A basic structural problem with the exhaustion requirement is that prison officials themselves—the defendants in most lawsuits brought by prisoners—typically design the grievance system that prisoners must exhaust before filing suit. This creates obvious incentives for prison officials to design grievance systems with short deadlines, multiple steps, and numerous technical requirements."[2][4] There is no requirement that the available administrative remedies be plain, speedy, or effective (as had been required under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act), much less fair.

According to the SAVE Coalition, "prisoner litigation has turned into a game of 'gotcha' in which correctional system lawyers and the federal courts scour the record for mistakes in exhausting, while the merits are forgotten, often on the most hair-splitting of grounds."[5] In 2009, the Prison Abuse Remedies Act was introduced in an effort to reform the PLRA, but it died in committee.[6]


  1. The cross-reference is to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which states, "Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress, except that in any action brought against a judicial officer for an act or omission taken in such officer’s judicial capacity, injunctive relief shall not be granted unless a declaratory decree was violated or declaratory relief was unavailable. For the purposes of this section, any Act of Congress applicable exclusively to the District of Columbia shall be considered to be a statute of the District of Columbia."
  2. 2.0 2.1 Human Rights Watch. "No Equal Justice". 
  3. Chen, Cindy (Winter 2004). "Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995: Doing Away with More than Just Crunchy Peanut Butter, The". St. John's Law Review 78 (1): 203-232. 
  4. Bright, Stephen B.. "Statement Regarding the Prison Abuse Remedies Act". "The exhaustion provision of the PLRA puts the potential civil rights defendants in charge of defining the procedural hurdles that a prisoner must clear in order to sue them. This produces a perverse incentive for prison officials to implement complicated grievance systems and require hyper-technical compliance with them in order to shield themselves from prisoners’ lawsuits. That has become the main purpose of many grievance systems." 
  5. Save Coalition. "Reform the Prison Litigation Reform Act". 
  6. "H.R. 4335 (111th): Prison Abuse Remedies Act of 2009". GovTrack.