CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
Prison Litigation Reform Act:
Survey of Post-Reform Act
Prisoners' Civil Rights Cases
November 4, 1997
American Law Division
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
Prison Litigation Reform Act:
Survey of Post-Reform Act
Prisoners' Civil Rights Cases
The Prison Litigation Reform Act ("PLRA"), P.L. 104-134, effective April 26,
1996, made major changes in the procedures that apply to federal civil rights cases
filed by prisoners in federal or state custody. The Act also sought to limit the
authority of federal courts to grant prospective relief in excess of the least intrusive
means available to remedy violations of prisoners' federal rights.
This report summarizes the Prison Litigation Reform Act and surveys postReform Act court decisions interpreting the Act and other cases concerning prisoners'
Before enactment of the PLRA, prisoner civil rights litigation constituted the
largest category of federal civil rights cases, 17% of district court civil cases, and
22% of federal civil appeals. Prisoners were able to file as "paupers," seldom paid
filing fees, and benefitted from pleading standards that made it difficult to dismiss
cases. Alleged violations most commonly involve the "cruel and unusual
punishments" clause of the Eighth Amendment, the free exercise of religion clause
or free speech clause of the First Amendment, and the due process clause of the
The Prison Litigation Reform Act generally requires payment of filing fees and
exhaustion of administrative remedies; curtails the authority of federal courts to
order prospective relief, including early release of prisoners to remedy prison
overcrowding; bars federal court-ordered prison construction and orders to raise taxes
as remedies; places limits on repeat frivolous filers; requires judicial screening and
early dismissal of nonmeritorious claims; and requires that prisoners who win
monetary damage awards must use the money to pay their outstanding restitution
orders to compensate crime victims.
The appellate courts have generally upheld the constitutionality of the key
provisions of the Reform Act, including the "immediate termination" of consent
decrees, the mandatory filing fees, and the dismissal of an in forma pauperis
petition if three earlier petitions by the prisoner were dismissed on grounds the cases
were frivolous, malicious, or failed to state a claim for relief. The appellate courts
have split over application of the PLRA's attorney's fee limits to services completed
before passage of the Act.
In a non-PLRA case, the Supreme Court held in Lewis v. Casey that there is no
abstract right of prisoners for access to certain legal materials or legal assistance.
The prisoner must prove an "actual injury" concerning denial of access to the courts,
which cannot be proved merely by showing deficiencies in the prison law library.
The lower federal courts are split on whether or not the Americans with Disabilities
Act applies to state prisoners.
Background . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2
Summary of Prison Litigation Reform Act . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3
Limits on Prison Condition Remedies . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4
Federal Intervention . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5
Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5
Judicial Screening . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6
Physical Injury Requirement . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6
Conduct of Hearings . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7
Attorney's Fees . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7
In Forma Pauperis Filings . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7
Satisfaction of Restitution Orders . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8
Revocation of Good Time Credits for Malicious Suits . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8
Waiver of Reply by Defendant: Pleading Standards . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9
Survey of Cases Decided Under the PLRA . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9
Limits on General Relief for Prison Conditions: "Immediate Termination"
of Consent Decrees . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9
In Forma Pauperis Filings . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 12
Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15
Physical Injury as Prerequisite for Certain Relief . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15
Limits on Attorneys Fees . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15
Recent Non-PLRA Prisoners' Civil Rights Cases . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 16
Conclusion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 19
Prison Litigation Reform Act:
Survey of Post-Reform Act
Prisoners' Civil Rights Cases
The Prison Litigation Reform Act ("PLRA") was enacted effective April 26,
1996 as Title VIII of the fiscal 1996 appropriations act for the Departments of
Commerce, Justice, and State, the Judiciary, and related agencies.1 This Act made
major procedural changes in the federal civil rights of prisoners in federal or state
custody. The Reform Act also sought to curtail the authority of federal courts to
remedy prison conditions, including prison overcrowding, that allegedly violate
prisoners' federal rights.
In extensive post-Reform Act litigation, prisoners and their advocates have
challenged the constitutionality and statutory applications of many Reform Act
provisions. Many of the cases focus on issues of retroactive application: to what
extent do PLRA requirements such as exhaustion of administrative remedies,
dismissal of "frivolous filers" after "three-strikes," the attorney's fee limits, and the
nearly-mandatory filing fees, apply to cases already filed and pending before a
district judge or on appeal. Another group of cases involves the constitutionality of
the limits on the authority of the federal courts to remedy prison conditions,
especially in the case of existing consent decrees.2
Pub. L. 104-134, Act of April 26, 1996. The Prison Litigation Reform Act ("PLRA")
amended 18 U.S.C. §3626 ("appropriate remedies with respect to prison conditions"); 18
U.S.C. §3624(b) (technical changes); 42 U.S.C. §1997 ("Civil Rights of Institutionalized
Persons"); 28 U.S.C. §1915 ("in forma pauperis filings"); 28 U.S.C. §1346(b) ("federal tort
claims"); and 11 U.S.C. §523(a) ("exception to discharge of debt in bankruptcy
proceeding"). The PLRA also added two new sections — §1915A ("Screening") and §1932
("Revocation of earned release credit") — to title 28, and new free-standing provisions
regarding satisfaction of victim restitution orders and notice to crime victims of pending
damage awards to prisoners. By reference, the Act altered the rights of prisoners pursuant
to 42 U.S.C. §§1983 and 1988. Finally, as a technical adjustment, the PLRA repealed
subsections (b) and (d) of section 20409 of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement
Act of 1994, Pub. L. 103-322 (Act of September 13, 1994).
In mid-1995, about one-fourth of the state correctional facilities was under a court
order or consent decree to limit prison population or address issues of conditions of
confinement. DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, BUREAU OF JUSTICE STATISTICS,
"Census of State and Federal Correctional Facilities, 1995" (August 7, 1997).
This report summarizes the Prison Litigation Reform Act, and surveys postReform Act court decisions interpreting the Act and other recent cases in the field of
prisoner civil rights litigation.3
Prisoner civil rights litigation in the United States had its primary genesis in
Supreme Court decisions in the 1960s. These decisions changed legal doctrine that
had formerly barred most prisoner civil rights suits.
Prisoners file civil rights actions primarily to challenge their conditions of
confinement in prisons or jails.4 Federal district courts have jurisdiction over cases
by state prisoners under the 1871 Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. §1983.5 Section 1983
is now interpreted as creating a private cause of action against any person who,
under color of state law, deprives another citizen or person within the jurisdiction
of the United States of "any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the
Constitution and laws" of the United States. In 1971, the Supreme Court created an
analogous remedy for constitutional wrongs by federal officials in Bivens v. Six
Unknown Named Agents of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.6
Alleged violations of prisoners' civil rights most commonly involve the "cruel
and unusual punishments" clause of the Eighth Amendment, the free exercise of
religion clause of the First Amendment, and the due process clause of the Fourteenth
For the past 20 years, Supreme Court decisions have gradually curtailed the
substantive rights of prisoners, compared to the earlier cases of the 1960s through
the mid-1970s, approximately. Even before passage of the Reform Act, the Court
held that prison officials are not liable unless they act with subjective "deliberate
indifference" to violate a prisoner's federal rights.7 With respect to imposition of
prison discipline, due process standards apply only in cases of serious misconduct
For a review and analysis of pre-1996 prisoner civil rights litigation, see D. Schrader,
Prisoner Civil Rights Litigation and the 1996 Reform Act, CRS Report No. 96-468A.
This report focuses on litigation by those confined in prisons rather than jails. Jails
are both pretrial detention facilities and places of punishment for short periods — usually
one year or less — for lesser offenses. Many of the prison conditions of confinement cases
apply in the jail context. Pretrial detainees, however, retain more constitutional rights than
convicted felons. See Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 539 (1979) (punishment "may not
constitutionally be inflicted upon detainees qua detainees").
Act of April 20. 1871, ch. 22, 17 Stat. 13. Section 1983 was amended slightly in
1979 to include the District of Columbia within its purview. Pub. L. 96-170, 93 Stat. 1284,
Act of December 29, 1979.
403 U.S. 388 (1971).
Farmer v. Brennan, 114 S. Ct. 1970 (1994).
involving issues of real substance.8 To show a violation of a federal right in prison
discipline cases, Sandin v. Conner9 holds that the prisoner must have suffered a
hardship that is atypical of ordinary prison life and significant in nature.
Notwithstanding this curtailment of substantive rights by recent Supreme Court
decisions, prisoner civil rights litigation continued to increase. At the time the
Prison Litigation Reform Act was passed, prisoner civil rights suits were the largest
category of federal civil rights cases, constituting 17% of all district court civil cases
and 22% of all federal civil appeals. Most prisoners filed as "paupers," seldom paid
filing fees, and benefitted from pleading standards that made it difficult to dismiss
Summary of Prison Litigation Reform Act
The Prison Litigation Reform Act ("PLRA"), Public Law 104-134,10 revised the
criminal code regarding the appropriate remedies for prison conditions in violation
of the Constitution or federal law, including prison overcrowding.11 These
amendments are intended to limit the authority of the federal courts to fashion
remedies to correct violations of federal rights.
The Act also amended the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (42
U.S.C. §1997) to make major changes in the procedural and substantive rights of
federal and state prisoners and in their ability to sue for alleged violations of federal
In summary, the Reform Act generally requires payment of filing fees and
exhaustion of administrative remedies; curtails the authority of federal courts to
order prospective relief, including early releases of prisoners to remedy prison
overcrowding; bars federal court-ordered prison construction and orders
Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539 (1974).
115 S. Ct. 2293, 2301 (1995) ("Discipline by prison officials in a wide range of
misconduct falls within the expected parameters of the sentence imposed by a court of
The Reform Act was passed as Title VIII of H.R. 3019, the fiscal 1996 appropriation
for the Departments of Commerce, Justice, and State, and the Judiciary and related agencies.
Act of April 26, 1996. The Senate version of the Reform Act was S. 1279. Although
enacted as part of an appropriations measure, the Prison Litigation Reform Act amended the
Amendment of 18 U.S.C. §3626. As enacted in the Violent Crime Control and Law
Enforcement Act of 1994, section 3626 placed some limits on the authority of federal courts
to order remedies for prison overcrowding. The PLRA now places limits on the authority
of federal courts not only with respect to prison overcrowding but also prison conditions in
to raise taxes as remedies; places limits on repeat frivolous filers; and requires that
prisoners who win monetary damage awards must use the money to pay their
outstanding restitution orders to compensate crime victims.12
Limits on Prison Condition Remedies.
The Reform Act prohibits 1) prospective relief13 regarding prison conditions
from extending further than necessary to correct violation of federal rights of
particular plaintiffs; 2) the court from granting any relief other than the least
intrusive means necessary to correct the violation.14 The court is also directed to give
substantial weight to any adverse impact on public safety or operation of the criminal
justice system caused by the relief, and to respect principles of comity set out in the
Reform Act. Termination of prospective relief is authorized upon motion of any
party or intervenor within 2 years after its entry, or, in the case of pre-Reform Act
orders, within 2 years after April 26, 1996.15
Bar on court-ordered prison construction. Federal courts are prohibited from
ordering the construction of prisons or the raising of taxes as remedies for prison
conditions in violation of federal rights.16
Preliminary relief. If the court orders preliminary injunctive relief, the
injunction shall automatically expire 90 days after its entry, unless the court makes
the statutory findings required to justify prospective relief and makes the order final
before expiration of the 90-day period. The preliminary injunctive relief must also
be narrowly drawn, extend no further than necessary to correct a violation, and be the
least intrusive means necessary to correct the violation. In addition to giving
substantial weight to any adverse impact on public safety in ordering preliminary
relief, the court must respect principles of comity set out in the Reform Act.17
Comity. The statutory principles of comity require that the court not order any
prospective relief that requires or permits a state or local government official to
exceed his or her authority or otherwise violate state or local law unless the relief is
This summary characterizes the apparent intent of the Congress in enacting the
PLRA. The next section of the Report will examine the judicial interpretation of the Act to
"Prospective relief" means all relief other than compensatory monetary
18 U.S.C. §3626, as amended by Pub. L. 104-134.
18 U.S.C. §3626(b).
18 U.S.C. §3626(a)(1)(C). The term "prison" is defined to mean any Federal, State,
or local facility that incarcerates or detains juveniles or adults accused of, convicted of,
sentenced for, or adjudicated delinquent for, violations of criminal law.
18 U.S.C. §3626(a)(2).
necessary to correct the violation of a federal right and no other relief will correct the
Prisoner release orders. Only a three-judge court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §2284
can enter a prisoner release order as relief for prison conditions violations of federal
rights. To enter such an order, the three-judge court must find by clear and
convincing evidence that overcrowding is the primary cause of the violation of a
federal right and that no other relief will remedy the violation.19 As pre-conditions
to convening a three-judge court, the district court must have issued a less intrusive
prior order which failed to remedy the violation, and the defendants must have had
a reasonable amount of time to comply with the previous court order.20
Any state or local official or unit of government whose jurisdiction or function
includes responsibility for the jail, prison, or correctional facility affected by a
possible prisoner release order has standing to oppose imposition of the order or its
Special masters. If special masters are appointed, they must be paid from funds
appropriated to the Judiciary.22
Settlements. The courts are prohibited from entering or approving a consent
decree unless it complies with the limitations on relief set by 18 U.S.C. §3626(a).
Private settlement agreements must also comply with the same limitations on relief
if the terms of the agreement are subject to court enforcement.23
All prospective relief affected. The amended section 3626 of title 18 U.S.C.
applies to all orders for prospective relief in prison condition cases, including preReform Act orders.24
The Attorney General must personally sign any complaint by the federal
government to initiate a civil action, or any motion by the federal government to
intervene in civil rights litigation, under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons
Act.25 The Attorney General must also personally sign any certification of
18 U.S.C. §3626(a)(1)(B).
18 U.S.C. §3626(a)(3).
18 U.S.C. §3626(a)(3)(A).
18 U.S.C. §3626(a)(3)(F).
18 U.S.C. §3626(f)(4).
18 U.S.C. §3626(c).
SEC. 802(b) of Pub. L. 104-134. The application of amended 18 U.S.C. §3626 to
court orders and consent decrees that pre-date the PLRA is one of the highly litigated issues
surveyed in the next section of this Report.
Amendments of 42 U.S.C. §§1997a and 1997c.
compliance with federal regulations or standards by state governments regarding
conditions of confinement in state institutions.26
Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies.
The Prison Litigation Reform Act mandates exhaustion of federal and state
administrative remedies before filing any §1983 action or other federal action with
respect to prison conditions.27 Exhaustion is required for persons confined in any
jail, prison, or other correctional facility.
Before passage of the PLRA, the courts had discretion to require exhaustion,
but they did not require exhaustion where monetary relief was sought and the state
did not provide damages as an administrative remedy. Since most §1983 petitioners
seek monetary relief, exhaustion was generally not required.
The PLRA also provides that the failure of a state to adopt or adhere to an
administrative grievance procedure for prisoners shall not constitute a basis for action
under section 3 or 5 of the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act.
The Reform Act directs the courts to screen and dismiss actions, as soon as
possible either before or after docketing, that are frivolous or malicious, fail to state
a claim upon which relief could be granted, or seek monetary relief from defendants
who are immune from such relief (e.g., state governments that have not waived
The same standards are set out in a new dismissal provision in §1997e of the
Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act. Prisoner claims must be dismissed on
the court's own motion or on the motion of a party if the claims are frivolous,
malicious, fail to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, or seek monetary
relief from a defendant who is immune to such relief.
Physical Injury Requirement.
No prisoner confined in a jail, prison, or other correctional facility may bring
a federal civil rights action for mental or emotional injury suffered while in custody
without a prior showing of a physical injury.29
For purposes of filing a federal civil rights action, the Reform Act defines
"prisoner" to mean "any person incarcerated or detained" in any facility who is
Amendment of 42 U.S.C. §1997b.
Amendment of 42 U.S.C. §1997e.
New §1915A added to title 28 U.S.C.
SEC. 7(e) of 42 U.S.C. §1997e as amended by Pub. L. 104-134. The Reform Act
erects the same bar on mental or emotional injury tort claims by convicted felons. 28 U.S.C.
"accused of, convicted of, sentenced for, or adjudicated delinquent for, violations of
criminal law or the terms and conditions of parole, probation, pretrial release, or
diversionary program."30 The limitations on prisoner civil rights actions legislated
by the Reform Act therefore apply to persons detained in jail awaiting trial, to
juvenile detainees or offenders, and, of course, to adult offenders confined in a jail,
prison, or other correctional facility.
Conduct of Hearings.
To the extent practicable, where a prisoner's participation is required in pretrial
proceedings, the proceedings shall be conducted by telephone, video conference, or
other telecommunications technology without removing the prisoner from his or her
place of confinement. Subject to the agreement of the federal or state custodial
officials, hearings may be conducted at the place of confinement.31
The PLRA sets limits on an award of attorney's fees in prisoner civil rights
actions. Attorney fee awards pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §1988 are prohibited except to
the extent the fee was directly and reasonably incurred in proving an actual violation
of a prisoner's rights protected by statute and then only if one of two other conditions
is met: i) the amount of the fee is proportionately related to the court ordered relief,
or ii) the fee was directly and reasonably incurred in enforcing the relief ordered for
The first condition addresses cases where a jury has awarded a prisoner nominal
damages (e.g., ten cents), but the court allows significant attorney's fees (e.g.,
$28,000).33 The second condition relates to cases where attorneys are involved in
enforcing nonmonetary relief.
The PLRA also requires the prisoner to pay up to 25% of any monetary damages
to satisfy the fees of his/her attorney. Also, the hourly rate shall not be greater than
150% of the rate established by 18 U.S.C. §3006A for court-appointed counsel.
SEC. 7(h) of 42 U.S.C. §1997e as amended by Pub. L. 104-134.
SEC. 7(h) of 42 U.S.C. §1997e.
SEC. 7(d) of 42 U.S.C. §1997e as amended by Pub. L. 104-134.
These were the facts in Lucas v. Guyton, 901 F. Supp. 1047 (D. So. Car. 1995). A
jury found for a death-row inmate on one claim and awarded 10 cents in damages. The
evidence demonstrated that the inmate had a history of self inflicted injuries and a habit of
fighting with guards. The day of the incident, the inmate was admittedly drunk, swung the
first punch, possibly spat at the guard, and violently resisted transfer to an isolation cell.
The district court thought it significant that the jury awarded even 10 cents in damages.
(Apparently the court did not consider the possibility that the award was actually in effect
an insulting award for wasting the jury's time.) The court awarded attorney's fees of $28,700
because counsel had been instrumental in vindicating a constitutional right. (The jury knew
of course that the prisoner was on death-row but did not know the facts of the crime. Lucas
had murdered two elderly people in their home.)
In Forma Pauperis Filings.
Filing fees. A prisoner seeking to file in forma pauperis must submit a certified
copy of his prison trust fund for the most recent six-months and pay the full amount
of a filing fee, if any funds are available. The court must set a schedule for
collecting the fees from the individual trust fund.34 If no funds are available to pay
the filing fee, the prisoner may file the civil rights action without paying a fee.
False allegations of poverty. If the court finds that the allegation of poverty is
untrue, it shall dismiss the case at any time. For a third time, the Reform Act also
specifies dismissal of the case if the court determines the action or appeal is frivolous
or malicious, fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted, or seeks monetary
relief against a defendant who is immune from such relief.
Repeat frivolous filings. A prisoner is prohibited from filing in forma pauperis
if three or more earlier actions or appeals have been dismissed on the grounds the
case was frivolous, malicious, or failed to state a claim upon which relief could be
granted, unless the prisoner is under imminent danger of serious physical injury.35
Satisfaction of Restitution Orders.
Any compensatory damages award to a prisoner for a civil rights violation must
be paid directly to satisfy any outstanding restitution orders pending against the
prisoner.36 The prisoner receives any amount that remains after full payment of the
The Reform Act also requires, that prior to payment of an award to a prisoner,
reasonable efforts shall be made to notify the prisoner's crime victims concerning the
pending award.37 The intent is to ensure that victims are compensated before the
perpetrator of the crime receives a civil rights money damages award.
Revocation of Good Time Credits for Malicious Suits.
Another disincentive to filing malicious or harassing suits applies only to
prisoners in federal custody. The court on its own motion or on the motion of any
party may order revocation of any earned good time credit under 18 U.S.C. §3624(b)
that has not yet vested if the court finds the claim was filed for a malicious purpose
Amendment of 28 U.S.C. §1915.
New 28 U.S.C. §1915(g), as added by Pub. L. 104-134. The statutory limits on
repeat frivolous filers and the requirement that prisoners seeking to file in forma pauperis
must pay fees if they have money in their prison trust fund accounts are among the key
provisions of the PLRA, from the perspective of the supporters of the Act. It is not
surprising that these provisions are also the focal point of a large number of the post-Reform
SEC. 807 of Pub. L. 104-134.
SEC. 808 of Pub. L. 104-134.
or solely to harass the defendant, or the prisoner testifies falsely or knowingly
presents false evidence.38
A related amendment provides that good time credit awarded under 18 U.S.C.
§3624 after enactment of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (i.e., after April 26, 1996)
shall vest on the date the prisoner is released from custody.
Waiver of Reply by Defendant: Pleading Standards.
Any defendant in a prisoner civil rights case under 42 U.S.C. §1983 or any other
federal law may waive the right to reply. This waiver shall not constitute an
admission of the allegations in the complaint.39
No relief shall be granted to the prisoner unless a reply is filed.40 The court may
require any defendant to reply if it finds that the plaintiff has a reasonable opportunity
to prevail on the merits.41
If defendants exercise their initial right not to reply in prisoner civil rights cases,
these waiver provisions coupled with the requirement for judicial screening to
identify frivolous or malicious petitions, or petitions that fail to state a claim, could
lead to early dismissals of a substantial number of prisoner petitions. Under preReform Act law, the Supreme Court had held that a prisoner in forma pauperis
petition could not be dismissed for failure to state a claim unless it appears "beyond
doubt" that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts to support the claim. Haines v.
Kerner, 404 U.S. 519 (1972). The PLRA appears to change this pleading standard
by requiring the court to find that the plaintiff has a reasonable opportunity to prevail
on the merits before the court can order the defendant to reply. Arguably, the waiver
provisions modify the Haines pleading standard.
Survey of Cases Decided Under the PLRA
Limits on General Relief for Prison Conditions: "Immediate Termination"
of Consent Decrees.
The appellate courts have upheld the constitutionality of the provisions of the
PLRA [18 U.S.C. §3626(b)] that seek to limit general court-ordered relief in prison
conditions of confinement cases. The 4th and 8th Circuit Courts of Appeal have
upheld the provisions as constitutional, and either ordered termination or remanded
the case for the district court to order termination. The 2d Circuit purported to hold
the provisions constitutional, but only through an interpretation that essentially
requires the state courts to substitute for the federal courts in enforcing the provisions
of the consent decree that exceed federal constitutional rights. It ordered a new
New 28 U.S.C. §1932.
SEC. 7(g)(1) of 42 U.S.C. §1997e.
SEC. 7(g)(2) of 42 U.S.C. §1997e.
hearing rather than termination because the pretrial detainees were entitled to a
hearing on alleged new violations of federal rights. Several district court decisions
had held these provisions unconstitutional -- generally on separation-of-powers
principles, but all of these adverse decisions have been reversed on appeal except for
one decision in the Eastern District of Michigan.
The 4th Circuit in Plyler v. Moore.42 ordered termination of a consent decree
affecting the South Carolina prison system,43 which had been in effect since 1986,
holding that the PLRA constitutionally deprives the federal courts of authority to
approve relief greater than that required by federal law. The court rejected arguments
that the "immediate termination" provisions violate the separation of powers
principle, and the equal protection and due process clauses of the Fifth Amendment.
The provisions are not applied "retroactively" under the doctrine of Landgraf v. USI
Film Products44 since the statute affects the propriety of prospective relief.
In Gavin v. Branstad,45 the 8th Circuit rejected arguments that the "immediate
termination" of existing consent decrees violates the separation-of-powers principle,
impermissibly interferes in pending cases, or denies prisoners equal protection under
the law. The appellate court reversed the district court, which had held the
provisions unconstitutional. Since the PLRA does not burden prisoners' fundamental
right of access to the courts, its constitutionality can be analyzed under a rational
basis standard rather than under strict scrutiny. The PLRA passes this test since the
government has a rational interest in promoting judicial economy and reducing the
involvement of the courts in state prison management.
It is well-established that Congress has the authority to control the remedial
powers of Article III courts. Also, since a consent decree is an executory form of
relief that remains subject to later developments, the Constitution does not bar the
Congress from limiting the remedies available under existing consent decrees.
With respect to equal protection arguments, nothing in 18 U.S.C. §3626 divests
prisoners of a reasonably adequate opportunity to present claimed violations of
fundamental constitutional rights to the courts. The "immediate termination"
provisions implicate neither a fundamental right nor a suspect classification. The
equal protection claim fails because there the PLRA is based on legitimate
governmental interests -- the promotion of principles of federalism, security of
prisons, and fiscal restraint. The limitation of relief to that which is essential to
enforce prisoners' rights under the Constitution is an eminently rational means of
furthering these governmental interests.
100 F.3d 365 (4th Cir. 1996).
The 1986 consent decree was primarily concerned with measures to alleviate prison
overcrowding, but also contained detailed provisions relating to health services, educational
programs, vocational training, food service, and visitation.
511 U.S. 244 (1994).
122 F. 3d 1081 (8th Cir. 1997).
The 8th Circuit reversed and remanded the case to the district court (presumably
to order termination, consistent with its opinion). The district court had ruled the
PLRA unconstitutional and therefore had not ordered termination of the consent
The Second Circuit upheld the "immediate termination" provisions by
interpreting the PLRA as a limitation only on the federal court's power to enforce
non-federal aspects of consent decrees and by interpreting the term "relief" as not
including the consent decrees themselves, in Benjamin v. Jacobson.47 The consent
decrees remain binding on the parties and the 2d Circuit apparently assumes that the
state courts will grant specific performance of the consent decrees under contract law.
The court intimated that if state courts do not enforce the contractual rights in the
consent decrees, the federal courts might still have jurisdiction to remedy an
unconstitutional impairment of contractual rights.
Moreover, the inmates in this case are entitled to an evidentiary hearing on their
allegations of current and ongoing violations of federal rights. The court therefore
lifted the stay on enforcement of the consent decree, and kept the federal courts in
the business of enforcing this consent decree. The case was begun in 1975 by pretrial
detainees in New York City jails.
Similar to Benjamin v. Jacobson, a Massachusetts district court in Inmates of
the Suffolk County Jail v. Sheriff of Suffolk County48 purported to uphold the PLRA's
termination provisions but did so by interpreting the term "relief" as not including
consent decrees. The court opined in dicta that, if the PLRA were interpreted as
wiping out the obligations under the consent decree, the provisions would be
unconstitutional as a violation of the separation-of-powers principle.
Like the decree in Jacobson, the Suffolk County jail case involved a consent
decree (dating from 1971) concerning conditions of confinement for pretrial
detainees. The fact that the Supreme Court has ruled that pretrial detainees have
broader constitutional rights than prisoners49 may have made the Second Circuit and
the Massachusetts district court more reluctant to disturb these existing consent
decrees. From the viewpoint of prisoner litigation reform advocates, however, the
statutory interpretation that the PLRA's limits on "prospective relief" do not include
consent decrees appears almost as negative as a decision holding the "immediate
termination" provisions unconstitutional.
Before the Benjamin v. Jacobson decision, a district court in the Southern
District of New York had granted the motion of state officials to terminate a consent
decree covering treatment of prisoners in the New York correctional system who
The decree in Gavin v. Branstad covers the Iowa prison system and dates from 1984.
124 F. 3d 162 (2d Cir. 1997).
952 F. Supp. 869 (D. Mass. 1997).
Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520 (1979) (punishment may not constitutionally be
inflicted upon pretrial detainees simply because they are confined in jails, awaiting trial).
refuse to take the test for latent tuberculosis. The court in Giles v. Coughlin50
approved a form of confinement in which such prisoners are generally confined to
their cells but may receive legal visitors, have library privileges, get one-hour of
exercise daily outside of their cells, and are released into the general prison
population after one year if they show no signs of active tuberculosis. After
approving this "tuberculin hold" form of confinement, the court terminated the
prospective relief ordered in the consent decree.
A district court judge terminated a 1982 consent decree requiring the corrections
officials of the Indiana State Prison system to recognize the American Muslim
Mission as a legitimate religious group in James v. Lash.51 The judge rejected
arguments that the PLRA violates separation of powers doctrine. Applying a rational
basis test, the court also rejected an equal protection challenge on the ground that
§3626 addresses legitimate governmental interests (such as federalism and judicial
economy) in a rational way.
The PLRA's "immediate termination" provisions have been held
unconstitutional by a district court for the Eastern District of Michigan in Hadix v.
Johnson.52 on the ground that they violate the separation of powers principle.
In Forma Pauperis Filings.
The largest category of post-Reform Act cases involves issues relating to the in
forma pauperis ("IFP") provisions of the Act, including the constitutionality of the
filing fee provisions of 28 U.S.C. §1915(b), retroactive application of §1915(b), and
the constitutionality and interpretation of the "three-strikes" limits on repeat
Constitutionality of mandatory filing fees.54 The filing fee requirements of
§1915(b) have been held constitutional by every appellate court to consider the issue,
including the 2d, 4th, 6th, and 11th circuit courts of appeal. In Nicholas v. Tucker,55
the 2d Circuit rejected constitutional challenges based on the equal protection clause
of the Fifth Amendment and on the First Amendment. Since the provisions do not
1997 WL 433437 (S.D.N.Y., August 1, 1997).
965 F. Supp. 1190 (N.D. Ind. 1997).
947 F. Supp. 1100 (D. E. Mich. 1996).
The prisoner is prohibited from filing in forma pauperis if three or more earlier
actions or appeals have been dismissed because the case was frivolous, malicious, or the
complaint failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. The only exception is
for a prisoner who is under imminent danger of serious physical injury.
The filing fees for prisoner civil rights complaints must be paid if any funds are
available in the individual prison trust fund account of the complainant. If no funds are
available in the account and the prisoner alleges poverty, the prisoner may file the civil
rights action without paying filing fees.
114 F. 3d 317 (2d Cir. 1997).
deny access to the courts, they can be analyzed under a rational basis scrutiny.56 The
goal of relieving the federal courts of excessive prisoner civil rights filings is a
legitimate governmental purpose.57 Payment of filing fees, as required of other civil
litigants, is a rational means to accomplish this goal; prisoners must decide whether
filing a lawsuit is worth the cost. The First Amendment claims were held subsumed
by the access to court claim.
The 4th Circuit rejected similar constitutional arguments in Roller v. Gunn.58
The right of court access is subject to the power of Congress to limit the jurisdiction
of Article III courts. The filing fee provisions are too mild to amount to a "burden"
on court access. The court ruled that prisoners are not a suspect class, and that the
filing fee provisions do not burden any fundamental rights. Therefore, it applied the
rational basis test and found the provisions constitutional.
The 6th Circuit in Hampton v. Hobbs59 and the 11th Circuit in Mitchell v.
Farcass60 made similar rulings upholding the constitutionality of the PLRA's filing
In a nonconstitutional law case involving the filing fee provisions, the 6th
Circuit held that, in class actions, the responsibility for paying the required fees rests
with the prisoner or prisoners signing the complaint or notice of appeal, and not with
the entire class.61
The Third and Fifth Circuits have held that the PLRA's filing fee provisions do
not apply to properly styled mandamus petitions by indigent prisoners.62
Retroactive application of the filing fee provisions. With respect to application
of the filing fee requirements of 28 U.S.C. §1915(b) to complaints or appeals filed
before enactment of the PLRA, there is a split in the courts of appeal. The 2d and
5th Circuits63 generally apply the PLRA filing fees to appeals filed before enactment.
Prisoners who genuinely have no money are not prevented from filing. Therefore,
the provisions do not burden inmates' right of access to the courts.
The Second Circuit remarked that the problem of frivolous prisoner lawsuits has
been well-documented. Congress' conclusion on this point is amply supported and clearly
107 F. 3d 227 (4th Cir. 1997).
106 F. 3d 128 (6th Cir. 1997).
112 F. 3d 1483 (11th Cir. 1997).
In re Prison Litigation Reform Act, 105 F.3d 1131 (6th Cir. 1997).
Madden v. Myers, 102 F.3d. 74 (3d Cir. 1996) and Santee v. Quinlan, 115 F.3d. 355
(5 Cir. 1997).
The Fifth Circuit assesses fees even if the appellate briefing was completed before
enactment. Ayo v. Bathey. 106 F.3d 98 (5th Cir. 1997). The Second Circuit generally
assesses fees for appeals filed before enactment [Covino v. Reopel, 89F.3d 105, 108 (2d Cir.
1996)], but not to appeals that were fully briefed before enactment. Duamutef v. O'Keefe,
The 6th, 7th, and 10th Circuits have held that the PLRA filing fees do not apply to
notices of appeal filed before enactment.64
Repeat frivolous filers. The constitutionality of the PLRA's "three-strikes"
provisions, requiring dismissal of a fourth IFP petition, has been upheld by the 5th,
7th,65 and 11th Circuits.66 The 8th,67 9th68 and 10th69 Circuits have interpreted and
applied the "three-strikes" provision without engaging in a constitutional analysis.
One district court applied strict scrutiny and held the provisions unconstitutional as
a violation of the equal protection clause,70 but this decision was overturned when the
8th Circuit dismissed the case.
In Carson v. Johnson,71 the 5th Circuit subjected the prisoner's claims to a
rational basis review because the "three-strikes" provision does not impair a
fundamental right. The PLRA's purpose of deterring frivolous and malicious
lawsuits, in order to preserve scarce judicial resources, is a legitimate governmental
interest. It is rational to distinguish between prisoners and other civil litigants.
Prisoners have more free time than non-prisoners, and many have abused the judicial
system in a manner that non-prisoners have not. The court also held that pre-PLRA
dismissals count towards the three strikes.
The district court in Southern Iowa ruled in Lyon v. Vande Krol72 that 28 U.S.C.
§1915(g) is unconstitutional as a violation of the equal protection clause of the Fifth
Amendment because it treats prisoners who seek to proceed IFP differently from
98 F. 3d 22, 24 (2d Cir. 1996).
Miles v. United States, 1996 U.S. App. LEXIS 30846 (6th Cir. 1996); Thurman v.
Gramley, 97 F.3d 185, 188 (7th Cir.1996); and White v. Gregory, 87 F.3d 429 (10th Cir.
The 5th Circuit decision is discussed in the text of this report. The 7th Circuit held
in Smith v. Officer Przblyski, 1997 U.S. App. LEXIS 5540 (March 19, 1997) that the threestrikes provision applies to cases filed after three cases have been completed. Cases pending
before the third strike is reached are not subject to dismissal under the three-strikes
Mitchell v. Farcass, 112 F.3d 1483 (11th Cir. 1997) (three-strikes provision applies
to claims pending at the time the PLRA was enacted because the provisions are wholly
procedural in nature).
Lyon v. Vande Krol, ___ F. 3d ___, 1997 WL 638238 (8th Cir. 1997).
Marks v. Slocum, 98 F. 3d 494 (9th Cir. 1996) (three-strikes provision is applicable
to appeals pending at the time of enactment of the PLRA).
Green v. Nottingham, 90 F. 3d 415 (10th Cir. 1996) (cases dismissed as frivolous or
malicious or for failure to state a ground on which relief can be granted, before enactment
of the PLRA, count toward the three-strikes).
Lyon v. Vande Krol, 940 F. Supp. 1433 (S.D. Iowa 1996), dismissed on appeal, 1997
WL 638238 (8th Cir. October 17, 1997).
112 F.3d 818 (5th Cir. 1997).
940 F. Supp. 1433 (S.D. Iowa 1996), appeal pending to the 8th Circuit.
prisoners who can pay filing fees. This judge applied strict scrutiny analysis because
he found that the provision burdens a "fundamental" right -- prisoners' access to the
Upon an interlocutory appeal to the 8th Circuit, the Lyon case was dismissed
pending payment of the filing fees.73 Technically, the appellate court decided it
lacked jurisdiction to consider the constitutional issues since the prisoner had failed
to show that access to the courts had actually been impeded. Under a recent Supreme
Court decision in Lewis v. Casey,74 an "actual injury" must be established to have
standing to assert a denial of access to the courts.
Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies.
A two-one majority of a panel in the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals held that the
PLRA's required exhaustion of administrative remedies (before prisoners may file a
federal civil rights suit) does not apply to cases pending on appeal when the PLRA
was enacted. Wright v. Morris, 111 F.3d 414 (6th Cir. 1997). The majority
construed the amendment of 42 U.S.C. §1997e(a) to mean the exhaustion
requirement applies only to new actions filed on or after the PLRA was enacted. It
contrasted the language of this provision with the PLRA's provision on immediate
termination of consent decrees, noting that the latter expressly applies to existing
The dissenter argued that the exhaustion amendment amounts to a change in the
jurisdiction of the federal courts. Under Landgraf v. USI Film Products, 511 U.S.
244 (1994), this kind of statute may ordinarily be applied to pending cases,
according to the dissent.
Physical Injury as Prerequisite for Certain Relief.
A district court in Southern Indiana has upheld the requirement of the PLRA
that prisoners must prove a "physical injury" as a prerequisite to maintaining a civil
action to recover for mental or emotional injuries suffered while in prison. Zehner v.
Trigg, 952 F. Supp. 1318 (S.D. Ind. 1997).
The case involved a class action filed by inmates employed in the kitchen of the
Indiana Youth Center, who claimed they were injured by exposure to asbestos. The
court agreed with other courts who have ruled that "mere exposure to asbestos or
other hazardous substances is not itself a physical injury." 952 F. Supp. at 1322.
Moreover, the court applied the physical injury requirement of the PLRA to class
members who were no longer in custody at the time the action was filed.
Limits on Attorneys Fees.
The courts of appeal are split on the application of the PLRA's attorneys fee
limitations to services rendered before enactment.
A majority of a 4th Circuit
___ F.3d ___, 1997 WL 638238 (8th Cir. 1997).
116 S. Ct. 2174 (1996).
panel ruled in Alexander S. v. Boyd75 that the PLRA's limitations on attorneys' fees
apply to any fee award made after enactment of the PLRA without regard to when the
attorneys' work was done. The appellate court also held the limitations applicable in
actions challenging conditions of confinement in juvenile facilities.
The Seventh and Eighth Circuits have reached a different interpretation of the
PLRA's fee limitations provision. In Cooper v. Casey76 and Jensen v. Clarke,77 these
appellate courts held the fee limitations do not apply retroactively to fees for services
rendered before passage of the Act.
A district court in Northern New York has gone even further than the 7th and
8th Circuits in allowing recovery of attorneys' fees in excess of the PLRA's limits.
In Blissett v. Casey,78 the court held the fee limits are not applicable to attorneys who
performed most of their work in representing indigent prisoners after enactment of
the PLRA but were retained before that date. Applying the retroactivity analysis of
Landgraf v. USI Film Products, the court said the PLRA would impermissibly
impose new duties with respect to transactions already completed if the Act's fee
limits were applied to attorneys retained before enactment. (The PLRA requires
successful litigants to pay up to 25 percent of any judgment to satisfy the fees of their
attorneys.) In the view of this court, application of the fee limits to attorneys
retained before enactment of the PLRA would upset the reasonable expectations of
the plaintiffs and their attorneys, and would deprive the prisoner-plaintiffs of full
compensation for violations of their constitutional rights.
Recent Non-PLRA Prisoners' Civil Rights Cases
This section briefly highlights a few of the recent prisoners' civil rights cases
that do not expressly interpret the Prison Litigation Reform Act.
Access to the courts. In Lewis v. Casey,79 the Supreme Court invalidated a
system-wide plan ordered by a district court in Arizona, which would have mandated
detailed changes in the Arizona prison system to provide prison law libraries and
legal assistance programs in each prison. The Court emphasized that an inmate
claiming denial of access to the courts must prove an "actual injury," and cannot
prove the injury merely by establishing there are inadequacies in the availability of
legal materials or legal assistance. There is no abstract, free-standing right to a law
library or legal assistance in prison. Moreover, if there are delays in availability of
113 F. 3d 1373 (4th Cir. 1997). The case was a class action suit challenging the
conditions of confinement of juveniles housed in the South Carolina juvenile justice system.
The plaintiffs won the case in 1995, and attorneys fees were awarded. Later, additional fees
were requested for monitoring activities from February through August 1996. The PLRA
was enacted in April 1996.
97 F.3d 914, 921 (7th Cir. 1996).
94 F.3d 1191, 1202 (8th Cir. 1996).
969 F. Supp. 118 (N.D.N.Y. 1997).
116 S. Ct. 2174 (1996).
legal materials that are reasonably related to legitimate penological interests, such
delays are not of constitutional significance even if the delays result in actual injury.80
The Alaska Supreme Court held in Mathis v. Sauser81 that the Alaska state
constitution provides greater protection for Alaska prisoners than the "actual injury"
test of Lewis v. Casey, in determining limits on access to the courts. A majority of
the Court ruled that an inmate whose in-cell private computer printer was taken away
from him need only show that the prison's policy of prohibiting inmates from
possessing computer equipment in their cells was motivated by an intent to curtail
access to the courts.
In forma pauperis civil appeals. The Supreme Court recently held that the
equal protection and due process clauses of the 14th Amendment require a state to
provide free access to its civil appellate courts to an indigent parent whose parental
rights had been terminated by a trial court. M.L.B., Petitioner v. S.L.J., 117 S. Ct.
555 (1996). The state of Mississippi allowed in forma pauperis filings at the civil
trial level but not in civil appeals. The Court found that termination of parental
status implicated a fundamental right. Moreover, since the proceeding deprived the
indigent person of her status as a parent, the Court analogized the right of access on
the same basis as criminal appeals of petty offenses, for which a right to a free
transcript has been established.
The majority of the Court in the M.L.B. case attempted to confine its
precedential effect to termination of parental rights cases, but the dissent warned that
"the new-found constitutional right to free transcripts in civil appeals can [not] be
effectively restricted to this case."82
Application of ADA to prisoners. The courts of appeal have split on the issue
of whether or not prisoners in state correctional facilities are covered by the
Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"). The Fourth Circuit held in Amos v.
Maryland Department of Public Safety83 that the ADA does not apply to state
prisoners, even though the Department of Justice has interpreted the ADA as
applicable and has issued regulations to that effect. The Third84 and Ninth Circuits85
have held that the ADA applies to prisoners.
Mail and reading privileges of prisoners. A district court for the District of
Columbia struck down a 1996 statute prohibiting distribution of sexually explicit
material to prisoners on the ground the law (known as the "Ensign Amendment" to
the fiscal 1997 appropriations act) facially violates the First Amendment. Amatel v.
116 S. Ct. At 2185.
942 P. 2d 1117 (Sup. Ct. Alaska 1997).
117 S. Ct. At 570.
___ F. 3d ___, 1997 WL 581652 (4th Cir. 1997).
Yeskey v. Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, 118 F.3d 168 (3d Cir. 1997).
Armstrong v. Wilson, 124 F. 3d 1019 (9th Cir. 1997).
Prior to the Ensign Amendment, prison wardens could ban those
publications that were detrimental to the security, good order, or discipline of the
institution or those that might facilitate criminal activity. The court acknowledged
that certain prisoners should not receive any sexually explicit materials and that
certain sexually explicit materials should not be received by any prisoner. It
nevertheless declared the law unconstitutional because it was too broad and failed to
satisfy the content-neutral test of Turner v. Safley.87
Prohibition on prison mutiny. The Seventh Circuit upheld a federal statute
prohibiting "mutiny" in federal correctional facilities in United States v. Overstreet,88
and applied it against inmates who were charged with instigating and assisting in a
mutiny. The defendants had argued the statute is unconstitutionally vague since
"mutiny" is not defined.
Due process in prison punishment. The lower federal courts have adopted
varying interpretations of Sandin v. Conner,89 a case in which the Supreme Court
attempted to set new standards for due process claims by prisoners who are punished
for bad behavior in prison. Under Sandin, disciplinary confinement does not trigger
due process protections unless the punishment represents an atypical and significant
hardship on inmates in relation to ordinary prison life.
An inmate's placement in administrative custody for 15-months pending
investigation of his alleged rape of a female corrections officer did not violate due
process in Griffin v. Vaughn.90 Similarly, a prisoner's transfer without notice or a
hearing to a higher-security prison because of a romantic relationship with a
corrections officer did not violate the inmate's due process rights in Freitas v. Ault.91
The Second Circuit may be inclined to adopt a more restrictive view of Sandin,
however, than that reflected in the above cases from the Third and Eighth Circuits.
In two recent cases, the Second Circuit remanded cases to the district court because
appropriate findings were not made that 180-days segregated confinement for
assaulting a fellow inmate92 and 180-days in administrative confinement for a
physical altercation with corrections officers93 did not impose an atypical and
significant hardship in relation to ordinary prison life. In the latter case, the court
hinted that New York prisoners may have a due process liberty interest in avoiding
long-term administrative confinement.
___ F. Supp. ___, 1997 WL 468167 (D.D.C. 1997).
482 U.S. 78 (1987).
106 F.3d 1354 (7th Cir. 1997).
115 S. Ct. 2293 (1995).
112 F. 3d 703 (3d Cir. 1997).
109 F. 3d 1335 (8th Cir. 1997).
Miller v. Selsky, 111 F.3d 7 (2d Cir. 1997).
Brooks v. DiFasi, 112 F.3d 46 (2d Cir. 1997).
Deliberate indifference to serious medical needs. While rejecting several
constitutional arguments of Hispanic inmates, a district court for the District of
Columbia found the inmates' rights were violated by the failure to provide Spanish
translators or to offer written Spanish instructions at medical and health encounters
in prison.94 These failures amounted to "deliberate indifference to serious medical
needs" in violation of the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual
punishment. The practice of using untrained staff or other inmates as moderators
violated the inmates' due process rights to confidentially in medical information.
Similarly, failure to provide translation at disciplinary and parole hearings violated
The Prison Litigation Reform Act, Public Law 104-134, made major procedural
and substantive changes in the authority of the federal courts to remedy prisoners'
grievances concerning prison conditions, including overcrowding. The Act also
reformed the procedures applicable to federal civil rights cases filed by state and
federal prisoners who seek to litigate about prison conditions and their conditions of
The Reform Act, which took effect April 26, 1996, curtails the authority of
federal courts to remedy prison conditions, including overcrowding; requires that any
prospective relief be drawn as narrowly as possible; requires prisoners to exhaust all
state and federal administrative remedies before filing suit; requires payment of filing
fees; restricts the availability of attorney's fees; directs the courts to screen and
dismiss as soon as possible petitions that are frivolous, malicious, or fail to state a
claim on which relief can be granted; bars in forma pauperis petitions if three or more
earlier petitions were dismissed as frivolous, malicious, or for failure to state a claim
-- except where the prisoner is in imminent danger of serious physical injury; requires
that any damages awarded to a prisoner must be applied to satisfy pending restitution
orders against the prisoner; and requires that reasonable efforts must be taken to
notify victims of the prisoner that an award is pending.
Before passage of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, virtually all prisoner civil
rights cases were filed in forma pauperis. The Reform Act mandates payment of
filing fees, unless the prisoner has no funds whatsoever.
It is anticipated that, in due course, the Prison Litigation Reform Act will lead
to a significant reduction in prisoner civil rights petitions. In the short term, however,
prisoners and advocates of prisoner rights are challenging the constitutionality and
interpretation of many provisions of the Act.
The appellate courts have upheld the constitutionality of the provisions of 18
U.S.C. § 3626 that limit the authority of federal courts in prison conditions cases and
permit immediate termination of existing consent decrees. The Fourth and Eighth
Courts of Appeal have upheld these provisions and either ordered termination of an
Franklin v. District of Columbia, 960 F. Supp. 394 (D.D.C. 1997).
existing consent decree or remanded to the district court to order termination. The
Second Circuit also upheld the constitutionality of §3626, but interpreted the term
"relief" as not including consent decrees; the Second Circuit apparently assumes the
state courts will enforce the portions of the consent decree that exceed federal rights
under state contract law.
The in forma pauperis filing provisions of the PLRA, which require those
prisoners who have money in their prison trust fund accounts to pay filing fees, have
apparently been held constitutional by every appellate court to consider the issue.
The appellate courts have also upheld the constitutionality of the "three-strikes"
provision that requires dismissal of the fourth in forma pauperis petition if three
earlier cases were dismissed as frivolous, malicious, or for failure to state a claim.
With respect to the PLRA's limits on attorneys fees, the courts of appeal have
split on whether or not the limits apply to attorney services rendered (but not paid
for) before enactment.
In a non-PLRA case, the Supreme Court held in Lewis v. Casey that there is no
abstract right of prisoners for access to legal materials or legal assistance. An inmate
claiming denial of access to the courts must prove an "actual injury," which cannot
be proved merely by showing deficiencies in the prison law library.
The lower federal courts have split on whether or not the Americans with
Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to state prisoners. The Third and Ninth Circuits
apply the ADA to prisoners. The Fourth Circuit held in Amos v. Maryland that it does
not apply, even though the Justice Department has issued regulations applying the
ADA to prisoners.