Collaterally Attacking the Prison Litigation Reform Act’s Application to Meritorious Prisoner Civil Litigation

By Melissa Benerofe

Earlier this year, the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) reached its twenty-fifth birthday, reinvigorating discussion on its effects on people in prison and the U.S. criminal justice system more broadly.  This Note examines how the PLRA deters and obstructs prisoners’ ability to file meritorious civil rights lawsuits regarding the conditions of their confinement.  The PLRA does so primarily through four of its provisions, which this Note refers to as the “access provisions.” The access provisions include:  (1) the exhaustion of administrative remedies; (2) the filing fee provision; (3) the three-strikes rule; and (4) limitations on attorney’s fees.

This Note argues that there is a need for states to counteract the PLRA’s application to meritorious prisoner litigation not only for the dignity and well-being of people in prison but also to improve prison conditions overall.  This Note therefore proposes a broad framework to better ensure that prisoners have a fair opportunity to have their meritorious civil rights claims reach the court system and, further, succeed.  The framework requires states to:  (1) implement electronic grievance systems and (2) grant appropriate legal aid organizations that typically litigate prisoners’ civil rights cases with access to those electronic grievance systems.  This Note aims to encourage government actors and scholars to think more critically about how best to navigate a post-PLRA reality.