The Prison Mailbox Rule: Can Represented Incarcerated Litigants Benefit?

By Nico Corti

In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court created the “Prison Mailbox Rule,” which assesses the timeliness of incarcerated litigants’ filings based on the day they hand them to prison authorities.  The rule reduces the structural barriers to filing while imprisoned.  Although Houston v. Lack highlighted the unique challenges that pro se incarcerated litigants face, the Prison Mailbox Rule’s subsequent federal codifications did not limit its benefits to pro se litigants, despite purportedly “reflecting” the Houston decision.  Federal circuit courts of appeal today are split on whether represented people in prison can benefit from the Prison Mailbox Rule, leaving both litigants and judges with the “unenviable” task of determining who is represented by counsel.

At the conflict’s core is a disagreement about whether incarcerated or freed litigants are in the same position when represented by counsel.  This Note argues that, even when represented, people in prison face significant barriers to filing that outside litigants do not.  Moreover, Houston never explicitly limited the rule to pro se litigants, and the rule’s policy justifications apply equally to those represented by counsel.  Accordingly, this Note advocates for the Supreme Court to explicitly hold that all incarcerated litigants are entitled to the benefits of the Prison Mailbox Rule.  This bright-line rule would enable courts to apply the Prison Mailbox Rule consistently and predictably, removing a barrier to filing for people in prison.  Indeed, that is what the Prison Mailbox Rule was created to do.