Prison Litigation Reform Act
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The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) is a U.S. federal law that was enacted in 1996. Congress enacted PLRA in response to a significant increase in prisoner litigation in the federal courts; the PLRA was designed to decrease the incidence of litigation within the court system.
For the preceding 20 – 30 years, many prisons and jails in the United States had been enjoined to make certain changes based on findings that the conditions of these institutions violated the constitutional rights of inmates (in particular, freedom from cruel and unusual punishment or the right to due process). Many of these injunctions came as a result of consent decrees entered into between inmates and prison officials and endorsed by federal courts, so that relief was not necessarily tied to violations found. Many state officials and members of Congress had complained of the breadth of relief granted by federal judges, as these injunctions often required expensive remedial actions.
The PLRA was designed to curb the discretion of the federal courts in these types of actions. Thus, the central requirement of the act was a provision that a court “shall not grant or approve any prospective relief unless the court finds that such relief is narrowly drawn, extends no further than necessary to correct the violation of the Federal right, and is the least intrusive means necessary to correct the violation of the Federal right.”
"Automatic stay" section
The most pointed provision of the PLRA in this context is the so-called “automatic stay” section, which states that a motion to terminate prospective relief “shall operate as a stay” of that relief during the period beginning 30 days after the filing of the motion (extendable to up to 90 days for “good cause”) and ending when the court rules on the motion.
In Miller v. French, 530 U.S. 327 (2000), inmates attacked the constitutionality of the “automatic stay” provision, as a violation of separation of powers. By a 5-to-4 vote, the Supreme Court reversed. The Court held that the PLRA did not set aside a final judgment of a federal court, but rather it operated to change the underlying law and thus required the altering of the prospective relief issued under the old law. Secondly, the Court noted that separation of powers did not prevent Congress from changing applicable law and then imposing the consequences of the court’s application of the new legal standard. Finally, the Court held that the stay provision did not interfere with core judicial functions as it could not be determined whether the time limitations interfered with judicial functions through its relative brevity. (On the other hand, if the time limits interfered with the inmates’ meaningful opportunity to be heard, that would be a due process problem. Ibid., at 350. Since the decision below had been based on separation of powers, the due process argument was not before the Court. Thus, the constitutionality of the PLRA overall, and of the “automatic stay” in particular, is as yet undetermined, although the Court’s opinion seems disposed to a measure of acceptance.)
Another way Congress tried to curb prison litigation was by setting up an “exhaustion” requirement. Before prisoners may challenge a condition of their confinement in federal court, the PLRA requires them to first exhaust available administrative remedies by pursuing to completion whatever inmate grievance and/or appeal procedures their prison custodians provide:
- No action shall be brought with respect to prison conditions under section 1983 of this title, or any other Federal law, by a prisoner confined in any jail, prison, or other correctional facility until such administrative remedies as are available are exhausted. 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a).
The exhaustion requirement was the subject of a Supreme Court case, Jones v. Bock.
Some federal courts issue orders that certain prisoners and other pro se litigants cannot represent themselves in federal court. However, the 11th Circuit ruled in 2011 that a prisoner can file any post conviction claim he wants if he either files through counsel or pays a filing fee. 
- CRS Report 
- Title VIII of Pub.L. 104–134, 110 Stat. 1321.
- P.L. 104-134, 110 Stat. 1321 (2006); 42 U.S.C. § 1997e (1994 ed. & Supp. II).
- Woodford v. Ngo, 126 S. Ct. 2378, 2382 (2006) (Congress enacted the PLRA in 1996 in response to a significant increase in prisoner litigation in the federal court. To accomplish this goal, Congress included a “variety of provisions” in the PLRA, a “centerpiece” of which “is an ‘invigorated’ exhaustion provision, § 1997e(a).”)
- 18 U.S.C. § 3626(a)(1)(A). Under PLRA, the same criteria apply to existing injunctions, whether entered after trial or through approval of a consent decree. 18 U.S.C. § 3626(b)(3). To ensure that an injunction granting prospective relief does not remain in effect during the months or years that a trial of a prison conditions case typically takes, the act requires courts to rule “promptly” on motions to terminate prospective relief, with mandamus available to remedy failure to do so.
- 18 U.S.C. § 3626(e)(2). Thus, the statute expressly provided for the suspension of existing prospective relief within 30 days (or 90 days) from the filing of a motion to terminate the prospective relief. That suspension continues only until the court conducts a trial and makes the findings the act requires of it, but this period will doubtless be for an extended time given the complexities of the trial that must be conducted.
- See Plaut v. Spendthrift Farm, Inc., 514 U.S. 211 (1995); United States v. Klein, 13 Wall. (80 U.S.) 128 (1872).
- Miller, 530 U.S. at 341-50.
- Tim Phillips, "Activist Writes Graphic Novel Regarding When and How to File Prison Grievances", Activist Defense, June 1, 2013.
- Mackie L. Shivers, Jr. v. United States Government