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Broken Gate? A Study of the PLRA Exhaustion Requirement Past, Present, and Future
Unformatted Document Text:  Broken Gate? Introduction The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) was passed in 1996 and made applicable to all civil rights cases brought by institutionalized persons. Essentially, the measure was intended to perform a gate-keeping function, permitting the most meritorious prisoners’ claims to reach federal court, while screening frivolous matters during the course of preliminary administrative procedures. However, the courts applying the PLRA in the decade since its passage have set forth seemingly contrary opinions regarding the permissible parameters of this screening function, leaving the state of prisoner civil rights litigation in flux. This paper examines the legislative history and intent behind the PLRA, as well as the benchmark cases applying this statute to prisoner civil rights claims. Improvements to the preliminary administrative process applied to these cases will be proposed through discussion of a comparable screening provision currently used in addressing the filing fees applicable to indigent inmates. Legal Context of the PLRA Before beginning an examination of the PLRA and its effect on inmate litigation, it is helpful to first discuss the legal framework within which the PLRA operates. At the outset it should be noted that prisoners cannot sue their respective departments of corrections, nor individuals employed thereby, through direct application of the United States Constitution (Collins, 2005). This is because, without a specific statutory vehicle, or otherwise enumerated exceptions, state agencies (like departments of corrections) and their employees are immune from suit in federal court by virtue of the Eleventh 2

Authors: Passarelli, Mariah.
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Broken Gate?
Introduction
The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) was passed in 1996 and made 
applicable to all civil rights cases brought by institutionalized persons.  Essentially, the 
measure was intended to perform a gate-keeping function, permitting the most 
meritorious prisoners’ claims to reach federal court, while screening frivolous matters 
during the course of preliminary administrative procedures.  However, the courts 
applying the PLRA in the decade since its passage have set forth seemingly contrary 
opinions regarding the permissible parameters of this screening function, leaving the state 
of prisoner civil rights litigation in flux. 
This paper examines the legislative history and intent behind the PLRA, as well as 
the benchmark cases applying this statute to prisoner civil rights claims.  Improvements 
to the preliminary administrative process applied to these cases will be proposed through 
discussion of a comparable screening provision currently used in addressing the filing 
fees applicable to indigent inmates.
Legal Context of the PLRA
Before beginning an examination of the PLRA and its effect on inmate litigation, 
it is helpful to first discuss the legal framework within which the PLRA operates.  At the 
outset it should be noted that prisoners cannot sue their respective departments of 
corrections, nor individuals employed thereby, through direct application of the United 
States Constitution (Collins, 2005).  This is because, without a specific statutory vehicle, 
or otherwise enumerated exceptions, state agencies (like departments of corrections) and 
their employees are immune from suit in federal court by virtue of the Eleventh 
2


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