Human Rights in Prison

The PLRA and You

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Need to Knows

The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) is federal legislation that dictates how a person in prison can pursue lawsuits in court. There are some basic facts that will help you, your friend, or your loved one understand the legal process.


The PLRA was passed in 1996. It was meant to reduce the number of lawsuits prisoners filed in federal court. The PLRA affects all aspects of prison litigation, including: what you have to do before filing a lawsuit, the fees you must pay to file, how easy it is to dismiss your lawsuit, what you need to prove to win, and what happens if you file several unsuccessful lawsuits.

  • Exhaustion: If you are still in prison, the PLRA requires that you “exhaust” administrative remedies before you file a federal lawsuit. This usually means that you must follow the entire prison grievance procedure through the highest level. (See “How to File a Grievance in Ohio Prisons”). There are some exceptions if the prison makes it impossible to complete the grievance process, but these exceptions are applied very rarely.
  • Fees: If you are still in prison, the PLRA requires you to pay the filing fee for your lawsuit, even if you have very little money. Under this law, you must pay part of the filing fee up front and will have to pay the rest in monthly installments. If you have absolutely no money when you file, you may not have to pay anything up front. But the court will look at the last 6 months of your prison account in making this decision.
    • The fee is $350 if the court finds that you only have a little money and grants you “in forma pauperis” status. If you don’t apply for this status up front, you will have to pay the full $400 (including a $50 “administrative fee”) when you file your complaint.
  • Initial screening: The PLRA requires the court to screen prisoner cases so that “frivolous” cases can be dismissed quickly. This means that your case can be thrown out of court even before the people you are suing make arguments against you. This initial screening requirement makes it very important to write a complaint that explains in detail which of your rights have been violated and who violated your rights.
  • Three Strikes: You receive a strike for each case that is dismissed as frivolous, malicious, or for failure to state a claim. After three strikes, you will not be allowed to get “in forma pauperis” status unless you are in serious danger.
  • Attorneys’ fees: The PLRA makes it very hard for attorneys to get attorneys’ fees for the work they do on behalf of prisoners. This means that many attorneys will not take prisoner cases even if there was a violation of civil rights. As a result, many prisoners pursue their cases without an attorney, or pro se.

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