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Original illustrations by Sophia Spagna ’24, an Illustration major at RISD

After trying and failing to receive protection from staff, Keith DeBlasio was raped in prison multiple times by a fellow inmate. Although DeBlasio filed an internal report within the appropriate window, he contested his prison’s initial ruling outside of the mandated time frame. Thus, when DeBlasio subsequently filed an official lawsuit, it was dismissed on grounds that he had “failed to exhaust administrative remedies.”

For many Americans, it is unfortunately unsurprising for an incarcerated person to be left with little hope of redress after their rights have been blatantly violated. What fewer people may know is why, specifically, cases like DeBlasio’s are so often dismissed on technicalities. Much of the answer lies in a rider, called the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), which was attached to a 1996 omnibus bill. The explicit goal of the PLRA was to make it more difficult for incarcerated individuals to initiate and win lawsuits (ostensibly to weed out frivolous ones) by implementing a veiled procedure of internal review. It has been remarkably successful in doing so: Within four years of its enactment, the number of federal lawsuits brought by incarcerated people dropped by 40 percent––even as prison populations grew substantially.

The US system of mass incarceration is notorious—both for the conditions within prisons as well as the size of the prison population subjected to those conditions. Moreover, incarcerated persons have few options to challenge the oppression they experience behind bars, not only because they are disproportionately likely to come from poor, marginalized communities, but also because of the formal political barriers they encounter (most notably, disenfranchisement). Consequently, civil litigation is essential to prisoners seeking legal justice. The PLRA undermines this accountability mechanism. It counterintuitively makes it more challenging for incarcerated individuals with already limited access to legal, financial, and political capital to receive remedies for civil rights violations—despite their unique risk of experiencing such violations. 

The first of these requirements, dubbed the “exhaustion provision,” receives the most attention. It mandates that plaintiffs utilize all available internal complaint systems before filing a lawsuit. This requirement endangers people who feel unsafe raising accusations within their prison, including those who fear retaliation. Sixteen-year-old Steven Zick fell into this category: He was repeatedly assaulted by other inmates, and, even after the abuse reached the point that he experienced a seizure and was deemed to be at risk of suicide, authorities “did nothing.” Zick declined to file a report, fearing that doing so would only lead to further harassment by inmates and guards. Given the widespread abuse of prisoners by prison authorities themselves, it seems fair to assume that many others may be in the same boat as Zick. Moreover, in addition to fostering fear of being considered a “snitch,” the exhaustion requirement also hinders vital assistance for inmates in need of medical attention and other time-sensitive care. 

Even for people who fall into neither of these categories, the exhaustion requirement can be harmful. People who have experienced trauma are often hesitant to share their stories, particularly when law enforcement is involved. Incarcerated survivors of sexual assault and other traumatic experiences in particular may feel uncomfortable disclosing their abuse within the stipulated time frame, not know about the reporting mechanisms available to them, or fear the potentially retraumatizing process of opening an investigation. In light of these substantial impediments to reporting abuse—much less receiving restitution for it—we should design our legal systems to make it easier, not harder, for survivors to come forward. The PLRA does just the opposite. Alarmingly, it even does so for children like Zick, who must navigate all of the administrative avenues themselves, as their parents are barred from bringing a case on their behalf. 

The PLRA also harms indigent plaintiffs by limiting courts’ ability to waive filing payments. In practice, this requirement means that even if an inmate has been deemed poor, they must pay the $350 federal court filing fee as well as any additional filing fees to bring a lawsuit. Given that incarcerated workers regularly earn less than $1 per hour, this is a formidable sum and likely deters people from bringing meritorious lawsuits. Even worse, the PLRA excludes prisoners from paying this fee in installments if they “have filed three or more actions in federal court that were dismissed as frivolous or malicious or for failing to state a claim on which relief can be granted.” Courts have read this provision “strictly,” to the detriment of inmates who may not be aware of how to properly file a claim. 

Finally, the PLRA prevents plaintiffs from receiving compensation if they are not physically harmed, discounting the importance of the immense psychological and constitutional violations that inmates experience. As legal scholars Margo Schlanger and Giovanna Shay explain, “Proven violations of prisoners’ religious rights, speech rights, and due process rights have all been held noncompensable, and thus placed largely beyond the scope of judicial oversight.” This phenomenon was tragically illustrated by Jariett v. Wilson, in which the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that inmate Stephen Jariett’s experience of being made to “stand in a two-and-a-half foot square cage for about 13 hours, naked for the first eight to 10 hours, and unable to sit for more than 30 or 40 minutes of this time” did not result in a significant enough physical injury to consider his case. 

There are plenty of reasons to doubt lawmakers’ claims that prisoners were filing mountains of lawsuits with trivial claims before the PLRA was passed. But regardless of whether the PLRA has excluded frivolous lawsuits, what is clear is that it has excluded many substantive ones. If we are truly faced with a choice between allowing frivolous and meaningful cases or limiting both, it is imperative that we choose the former. Living in true democracy ought to mean that we are endowed with civil and constitutional rights. For those rights to be meaningful, all members of society—including, and especially, those behind bars—need fair procedures by which they can hold institutions to account in the event of a violation. The PLRA undermines these procedures, eroding the equal application of the law for some of our country’s most vulnerable citizens. Congress should repeal it—Keith DeBlasio, Steven Zick, and Stephen Jariett did not relinquish their civil rights upon entering prison.