The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) became law in 1996 and was designed to decrease the rate of prison litigation in federal courts. It was passed in response to a perceived increase in litigation brought by incarcerated people and coincided with a boom in prison populations resulting from the 1994 Crime Bill. Rather than address the conditions in prisons that lead to litigation—including overpopulation, abuse, unhealthy and unhygienic living circumstances—the PLRA makes it extremely difficult for incarcerated people to legally advocate for themselves, even when they have a strong claim of a civil rights violation.
Here are some important things to know about PLRA:
- Exhaustion rule: The PLRA makes many lawsuits non-starters by requiring courts to dismiss cases if plaintiffs fail to “exhaust” a prison or jail’s internal administrative grievance processes before filing a lawsuit. Working through these administrative processes can be complicated, requires meeting difficult deadlines, and is often futile, as the administrative process can’t provide the same relief that courts can.
- Filing Fees: Under the PLRA, federal courts no longer waive the $350 filing fee for indigent persons. The fee must be paid in installments over time. Incarcerated people make between $0.14 and $0.63 an hour, so someone at the upper level of this pay scale would have to work 555 hours to afford the filing fee.
- Three Strike Rule: The PLRA’s Three Strikes Rule states that after filing three claims that a judge decides are “frivolous,” “malicious,” or do not state a proper claim, incarcerated plaintiffs must pay the entire filing fee up front. This makes filing a lawsuit in federal court effectively impossible for many people.
The PLRA significantly limits the ability of incarcerated people to defend their rights in court. That’s why we are filing amicus briefs urging judges to recognize exceptions to the PLRA that allow lawsuits challenging prison conditions to proceed.
It is expensive to be incarcerated. Over the past several decades, “[e]very aspect of the criminal justice process has become ripe for charging a fee.” People who are incarcerated must pay filing fees when filing appeals or claims seeking redress for violations of their constitutional rights, even if they have limited or no resources. Filing fees compound with the steep expenses of being incarcerated, a burden that is costly for those who are incarcerated, and for taxpayers.
The PLRA makes the high cost of being incarcerated even more burdensome, something that Matthew Griffin and Charlie Hardin can attest to.
Matthew Griffin, who is visually impaired, was incarcerated in North Carolina in 2019 and was ordered medical accommodations, which were denied by the prison staff. Ignoring Mr. Griffin’s demands, prison staff sedated him involuntarily and, as a result, Mr. Griffin fell and dislocated his shoulder. Despite his serious injury, Mr. Griffin’s calls for help were ignored. He filed administrative grievances which were dismissed under the PLRA.
Charlie Hardin alleges that while incarcerated, prison staff allowed other prisoners to try to stab him. Mr. Hardin defended himself and as a result was placed in solitary confinement. Mr. Hardin wants to be transferred to a safer facility and seeks damages for his placement in solitary confinement. A district court dismissed a complaint filed by Mr. Hardin because he did not exhaust the grievance procedure before filing the complaint. Rather than permitting Mr. Hardin to amend his complaint, the federal district court in North Carolina ruled that he had to file a new suit–and pay the filing fee a second time.
Mr. Hardin and Mr. Griffin’s experiences illustrate the high, and at times, impossible costs of self-advocacy people bear while incarcerated. And they are not alone.
The high costs of court filings have a disproportionate, and harmful, impact on people who are in dire financial circumstances both before, during, and after incarceration. The burden of paying just one single filing fee is nearly insurmountable; the burden of paying two is cruel and unjust.
The ACLU of North Carolina, along with the national ACLU, ACLU of Virginia, Disability Rights North Carolina, Emancipate NC, Rights Behind Bars, and North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services filed an amicus brief supporting Mr. Hardin’s appeal of the lower court ruling. We argue that Hardin’s economic reality, and the realities of so many others not represented in this case, should inform the enforcement of PLRA regulations. Specifically for his case, the brief argues that the district court should have permitted Mr. Hardin to amend his complaint rather than file a whole new lawsuit and be charged a second filing fee.
If the district court’s decision is affirmed, it would effectively double the financial burden imposed on many incarcerated people subjected to filing fees. Given the scant resources and high costs of living in the custody of the state, two filing fees constitute a colossal amount that can prevent intervention on harmful, dangerous, and inhumane treatment in prisons.
Far too often, poverty contributes to the circumstances that lead to people’s entrapment within the criminal legal system. Legislation like PLRA not only keeps people trapped, but it limits people’s ability to report injustice, violence, and neglect in prisons.
Read the Amicus Briefs filed by the ACLU of North Carolina
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Hardin v. Hunt Amicus Brief
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Griffin v. Bryant Amicus Brief