The PLRA, an anti-prisoner statute which became law in 1996, has made it much harder for prisoners to gain relief in the federal courts. While you will learn more about the PLRA in the following chapters, we have included a brief outline of its major parts, or “provisions,” here so that you keep them in mind as you start to plan your lawsuit. The full text of several important sections of the PLRA are included in Appendix F. One important thing to keep in mind is that most of these provisions only apply to suits filed while you are in prison. If you want to sue for damages after you are released, you will not need to worry about these rules.
1. Injunctive Relief
18 U.S.C. § 3626 limits the “injunctive relief” (also called “prospective relief”) that is available in prison cases. Injunctive relief is when you ask the court to make the prison do something differently, or stop doing something altogether. For example, if you file a suit asking that the prison change their policy to let you pray in a group, that is a case for injunctive relief. Injunctive relief and the changes in its availability under the PLRA are discussed in Chapter Four.
2. Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies
42 U.S.C. § 1997(e)(a) states that “[n]o 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.”
This is known as the “exhaustion” requirement. If you try to sue a prison official about anything he or she has done to you, the court will dismiss your case unless you have first filed an administrative grievance or complaint about the issue you want to sue over. You also have to appeal that grievance as far as possible. You will learn more about exhaustion in Chapter Five, Section A, Part 2.
3. Mental or Emotional Injury
The PLRA also states that “[n]o 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.”42 U.S.C.A. § 1997e(e).
Courts disagree about whether this allows you to sue for money damages for a constitutional violation that results in mental or emotional injury but not physical injury. The different interpretations of this provision are explained in detail in Chapter Four, Section C, Part 2. If you are suing to change a prison policy, you do not need to worry about this provision.
4. Attorneys’ Fees
Usually, if you win a Section 1983 case and you have an attorney, the defendants will have to pay your attorney for the work he or she did on your case. However, the PLRA limits the court’s ability to make the prison officials you sue pay for “attorneys’ fees” if you win your case. While this will not affect you if you are suing without the assistance of an attorney, it is part of the reason why so few attorneys are willing to represent prisoners.
5. Screening, Dismissal & Waiver of Reply
The PLRA allows for courts to dismiss a prisoner’s cases very soon after filing if the judge decides the case is “frivolous,” “malicious,” does not state a claim, or seeks damages from a defendant with immunity. The court can do this before requiring the defendant to reply to your complaint. This is discussed further in Chapter Six, Section B.
6. Filing Fees and the Three Strikes Provision
Courts charge everyone fees when they file a lawsuit. However, poor people are not required to pay all these fees up front. Under the PLRA, if you have had three prior lawsuits dismissed as “frivolous, malicious, or failing to state a claim for relief,” you may not proceed in forma pauperis and will have to pay your fees up front. There is an exception for prisoners who are “in imminent danger of serious physical injury.” Chapter Five, Section C, Part 2 describes how to file “in forma pauperis papers” and provides more information about the three strikes provision.