The Scholar: St. Mary's Law Review on Race and Social Justice


The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) passed in 1996 in an effort to curb litigation from prisoners. The exhaustion requirement of the PLRA requires prisoners to fully exhaust any administrative remedies available to them before filing a lawsuit concerning any aspect of prison life. If a prisoner fails to do so, the lawsuit is subject to dismissal. The exhaustion requirement applies to all types of prisoner lawsuits, from claims filed for general prison conditions to excessive force and civil rights violations. It has been consistently and aggressively applied by the courts, blocking prisoners’ lawsuits from ever going to trial. Attempts to exempt prisoners from its reach to allow unexhausted, yet meritorious claims have been struck down by the Supreme Court of the United States.

The exhaustion requirement mandates the use of an inmate grievance procedure, most of which create time limits for the filing of a complaint. Therefore, many of the suits dismissed for a failure to exhaust administrative remedies cannot be subsequently exhausted. Even where lawsuits are dismissed without prejudice for a failure to exhaust, the expiration of an inmate’s ability to exhaust acts as a bar on his or her lawsuit.

The PLRA also disproportionately affects black and Hispanic citizens; these minority groups comprise the majority of incarcerated individuals. In a society currently seeing increasing numbers of excessive force claims brought by black citizens against police officers, the PLRA creates a substantial obstacle for black and Hispanic inmates to bring similar claims against corrections officers, nurses, or anyone involved in life in the prison setting.

Due to its aggressive application and its subsequent restriction on access to the courts, the exhaustion requirement of the PLRA should be amended. Instead of applying a strict exhaustion requirement, the PLRA should only require a good faith attempt at exhaustion. Additionally, the good faith attempt at exhaustion should only be a requirement where a prison’s grievance procedure complies with federal guidelines. This would address the issues the PLRA intended; managing increasing prisoner litigation, giving prisons notice of unfavorable conditions, and preventing meritorious claims that were not exhausted from being barred as a result of missing a deadline.

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The Scholar: St. Mary's Law Review on Race and Social Justice

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St. Mary's University School of Law


Steven Marrone