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Broken Gate? A Study of the PLRA Exhaustion Requirement Past, Present, and Future
Unformatted Document Text:  Broken Gate? constitutional rights on behalf of many powerless groups in the United States - the Warren Court paved the way for prisoners to bring lawsuits for the first time, and with that, opened the “floodgates” of prison litigation as we know it today (Smith, 1986; Chen, 2004, p. 209). Specifically, in 1964, the Court decided the matter Cooper v. Pate, and in so doing, gave incarcerated persons the right to seek redress in United States district courts (i.e., federal court) for alleged violations of their constitutional and civil rights (Smith, 2003). Remarkably, prison litigation proceeded, largely unfettered, for more than 30 years prior to inception of the PLRA. In 1990, eerily foreshadowing the legislation that was about to come, noted criminologist John J. DiIulio, Jr. wrote that in the future, “the Congress may for better or worse, make the courts, corrections, and the Constitution a ménage a quatre” (DiIulio, 1990, p. 290). Just five (5) years after DiIulio penned these fateful words, the PLRA was proposed in Congress (Williamson, 2006). Several factors contributed to the push for passage of the PLRA. First and foremost, Federal District Courts in the United States experienced an increase in Section 1983 inmate litigation amounting of an unbelievable 1,153 percent rise from 1972 to 1996 (Williamson, 2006, p. 1). Notably, this rate of increase was more than double the rate of growth experienced by the nation’s overall prison population during that same period, which was 517 percent (Williamson, 2006, p. 1). When inmate litigation peaked in 1995 just prior to passage of the PLRA, inmates were shown to be 35 times more likely to file a civil law suit than their non-incarcerated brethren (Anonymous, 2004, p. 1668). That number meant that more than 24 inmates per every 1,000 confined in the United States had initiated some type of litigation in federal district court (Schlanger, 7

Authors: Passarelli, Mariah.
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Broken Gate?
constitutional rights on behalf of many powerless groups in the United States - the 
Warren Court paved the way for prisoners to bring lawsuits for the first time, and with 
that, opened the “floodgates” of prison litigation as we know it today (Smith, 1986; Chen, 
2004, p. 209).  Specifically, in 1964, the Court decided the matter Cooper v. Pate, and in 
so doing, gave incarcerated persons the right to seek redress in United States district 
courts (i.e., federal court) for alleged violations of their constitutional and civil rights 
(Smith, 2003).
Remarkably, prison litigation proceeded, largely unfettered, for more than 30 
years prior to inception of the PLRA.  In 1990, eerily foreshadowing the legislation that 
was about to come, noted criminologist John J. DiIulio, Jr. wrote that in the future, “the 
Congress may for better or worse, make the courts, corrections, and the Constitution a 
ménage a quatre”  (DiIulio, 1990, p. 290).  Just five (5) years after DiIulio penned these 
fateful words, the PLRA was proposed in Congress (Williamson, 2006).  
Several factors contributed to the push for passage of the PLRA.  First and 
foremost, Federal District Courts in the United States experienced an increase in Section 
1983 inmate litigation amounting of an unbelievable 1,153 percent rise from 1972 to 
1996 (Williamson, 2006, p. 1).  Notably, this rate of increase was more than double the 
rate of growth experienced by the nation’s overall prison population during that same 
period, which was 517 percent (Williamson, 2006, p. 1).  When inmate litigation peaked 
in 1995 just prior to passage of the PLRA, inmates were shown to be 35 times more 
likely to file a civil law suit than their non-incarcerated brethren (Anonymous, 2004, p. 
1668).  That number meant that more than 24 inmates per every 1,000 confined in the 
United States had initiated some type of litigation in federal district court (Schlanger, 
7


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