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Prisoners Have Rights But Protecting Them Requires Strict Adherence to Specific Procedures

On the surface, the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) might sound like a law designed to protect the rights of prisoners. This 1996 federal law was, in fact, created to reduce the incidence of potentially-frivolous prisoner litigation within the federal court system. Since the inception of the PLRA, prisoners with valid complaints regarding their civil rights must undergo a complex process before taking their claims to court. 

The PLRA requires prisoners to exhaust administrative remedies before filing a lawsuit. This means that they must go through an original complaint process and all levels of appeal for each individual grievance before taking the claim to court. As explained by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the only exceptions to this rule essentially pertain to some form of administrative system failure, such as:

  • The inability of a prisoner to obtain the forms required to file a complaint
  • A lack of response from one level of appeal that prevents the prisoner from taking a complaint to the next level

Equally important in the PLRA is the three strikes provision. If a judge dismisses three cases because they are deemed frivolous, prisoners cannot file additional lawsuits without paying the full court filing fee up front, unless there is an immediate risk of serious physical injury.

The administrative complaint system is designed to allow prisoners to file their own complaints. However, any prisoners who are mistreated by a prison that fails to provide needed medical care, sanitary and safe conditions, or otherwise does not protect their basic civil rights should consider seeking guidance and support from an experienced prison litigation lawyer to help ensure that their complaints are filed within the letter of the law.

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  • HSBA Hawaii State Bar Association
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  • United States District Court, Northern District of California
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