In 1995, Congress passed the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), which placed several restrictions on the ability of prisoners to file lawsuits based on the conditions of their confinement. Among other things, the Act sought to:
It's important to understand the PLRA because failure to comply with its requirements, many of which place additional burdens on prisoners not faced by other litigants, could doom any efforts to seek recourse for civil rights violations through the court system.
The Exhaustion Requirement
Perhaps the most important aspect of the PLRA is its strict exhaustion requirement. Specifically, it states that:
No action shall be brought with respect to prison conditions [. . .] by a prisoner confined in any jail, prison, or other correctional facility until such administrative remedies as are available are exhausted.
In other words, all of a prisoner's claims must be exhausted administratively before a lawsuit is even filed as exhaustion is not permitted while a suit is ongoing. Failure to do so can result in dismissal of a case.
The PLRA does not specify what administrative remedies states must provide to to inmates, as each state is allowed to create its own process for handling prisoner complaints administratively. However, whatever system is used, the Supreme Court has held that prisoners must comply with those procedures before filing suit.
In California, for example, a prisoner initiates a claim or by filing an Inmate/Parolee Appeal (CDCR Form 602). That form allows inmates to appeal any decision, action, condition, policy or regulation which has "a material adverse effect" on their welfare. It's important to include as much information in the form as known at the time it is submitted and the 602 does allow for the use of additional pages. Once submitted, an inmate then must exhaust their appeal through three consecutive levels of review. An appeal cannot proceed up to the next level of review until there has been a final determination at the lower level. A denial at the third level for inmates in California will then open the courtroom doors.
Under the PLRA, the only exception to the exhaustion requirement is where there are no administrative remedies are available and this can include situations when an inmate's appeal is lost or misplaced.
Filing Fees and Strikes
The PLRA also requires prisoners to pay court filing fees in full, although courts will allow prisoners to pay the fee with installments over time if they are filing in forma pauperis, meaning that they lack resources to pay the filing fee. However, under the PLRA, a prisoner can be stripped of their in forma pauperis status and be forced to pay the filing fee up front if they have three prior strikes, meaning that they have had at least three prior cases which were dismissed for being frivolous or malicious, or for failing to state a claim.
Common mistakes can be made when preparing a claim for court, especially when it comes to the exhaustion process. Many administrative reviews can be very picky with regulatory requirements and can, for example, return (not deny) an appeal for failure to use the correct form. In addition to following all of the administrative requirements, it's important to also:
Speak With An Attorney About Your Prison Rights
Prisoners have fewer rights and protections under the law, but the Constitution still applies within prison walls. The PLRA definitely puts extra hurdles in place for prisoners, but there are ways that you can use them to your advantage. If you are looking for representation based on a complaint for mistreatment, then you'll want to contact a defense attorney as soon as possible.