The PLRA makes federal civil rights lawsuits filed by prisoners more difficult, according to PPI. It was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996.
“For two-and-a-half decades, the legislation has created a double standard that limits incarcerated people’s access to the courts at all stages,” the PPI study states. “It requires courts to dismiss civil rights cases from incarcerated people for minor technical reasons before even reaching the case merits, requires incarcerated people to pay filing fees that low-income people on the outside are exempt from, makes it hard to find representation by sharply capping attorney fees, creates high barriers to settlement, and weakens the ability of courts to order changes to prison and jail policies.”
According to the PPI study, “the PLRA hinders court access for incarcerated people who are trying to file civil cases—which tend to be mostly civil rights cases. It does this by making these cases harder to bring, harder to win, and harder to settle.”
Examples of these difficulties are rules such as “exhaustion,” which requires prisoners to navigate through a jail or prison’s administrative grievance procedures, prior to filing a lawsuit in court. Prisoners in California must exhaust administrative remedies using an Inmate/Parolee Appeal (CDCR Form 602).
“Working through these administrative processes can be complicated, require meeting difficult deadlines, and often prove fruitless,” PPI stated.
In March 2020, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation filed an “emergency Notice of Change to Regulations” on appeals as the COVID-19 pandemic began spreading. The Office of Administrative Law approved the emergency filing in June of that year, which changed, renumbered, and repealed regulations. No known published copy of the new regulations has been distributed to prisoners at San Quentin.
There is also, for example, the Three Strikes Rule for indigent inmates, which according to PPI states in part, “…after filing three claims that a judge decides are frivolous, malicious, or do not state a proper claim, incarcerated plaintiffs can be required to pay fees upfront with few exceptions.”
The study also cited reasons why prisoners’ cases are hard to win under the PLRA. For example, under the physical injury requirement, “Incarcerated people are allowed to sue over unlawfully inflicted physical injury, but the PLRA restricts the remedies available in cases where people are alleging only mental or emotional harm.”
The PLRA also undermines settlements because it limits a court’s ability to enforce the terms of some settlement agreements, according to PPI. The law also discourages skilled lawyers from representing plaintiffs in civil rights cases because “It caps recoverable attorneys’ fees at a below-market rate…”
The study makes known that when supporters of the law discussed it, there were claims of too many prisoners who filed “frivolous” lawsuits. However, according to PPI, “incarcerated people are not particularly litigious.” Instead, it detailed how people in carceral environments face regularly “harsh, discriminatory, and unlawful conditions of confinement.” And because of their mistreatment, they seek redress from the courts, which has been limited under the PLRA so violations do not fall under public scrutiny.
“Vexatious Litigant” is how some inmates can be defined in California, according to the Definitions in the California Code of Regulations, Title 15. It is the longest description in the codified regulation.
“The PLRA should be repealed,” the PPI study states. “It was bad policy in the 1990s — an era full of unfair, punitive, and racist criminal justice laws — and allowing it to continue today is even worse policy.”
The PPI study revealed that civil rights litigation in federal court dropped immediately after the PLRA was passed. But more importantly, when the law was passed, such lawsuits were already falling from their peak in the late 1970s.
“It is time for Congress to repeal the Prison Litigation Reform Act,” PPI recommended. “Incarcerated people do not lose all of their rights at the prison or jail door. Yet all too often, their basic freedoms are violated inside these massive and expensive public institutions, which operate largely outside of public view and with little oversight.”
PPI is a non-partisan organization founded in 2001. Its undertaking is to expose “the broader harm of mass criminalization and spark advocacy campaigns to create a more just society.” Its reports bring attention to the unfamiliar effects of mass incarceration.