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Book Review: ‘The PLRA Handbook: Law and Practice Under the Prison Litigation Reform Act’ by John Boston

by Matt Clarke

Since being signed into law by President Clinton in 1996, the Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”) has become the premiere obstacle to prisoners’ obtaining relief in federal courts. Touted by proponents as a solution to the fictitious “explosion” of frivolous prisoner litigation that was “swamping” the federal judiciary. The PLRA’s effect was to make it much more difficult for prisoners to have even meritorious claims heard in federal court by imposing onerous restrictions on prisoners seeking relief.

In the post-PLRA world, many prisoners must litigate extensively over their alleged failure to meticulously comply with the many esoteric provisions of the PLRA before their claims are addressed. If they cannot prove PLRA compliance, their claims—regardless of merit—are never heard. This explains why, when I first laid eyes on the PLRA Handbook and asked myself whether we really needed a book solely addressing PLRA litigation, my answer was a resounding “YES!”

The burdens the PLRA places on prisoner litigants, including those represented by an attorney, are legion. They start before the lawsuit is filed by limiting the fees an attorney can be paid, thus making it difficult to even find one willing to represent a prisoner, and imposing a stringent perquisite that all available administrative remedies be exhausted, regardless of whether the relief sought is available through administrative proceedings.

The PLRA also requires the plaintiff to have suffered a “physical injury,” if damages are sought for “mental or emotional injury” it requires an indigent prisoner to pay the full filing fee in installments, a burden not placed on any other type off indigent litigant. Should the plaintiff have had three or more previous filings dismissed as frivolous, malicious, or for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted (three strikes), the full filing fee must be paid in advance unless imminent danger of serious physical injury is proven. Should a litigant manage to jump through all of the PLRA’s many hoops, the type, scope, and duration of available relief is limited.

Until this Handbook was published, both pro se prisoner litigants and attorneys representing prisoners had no single, comprehensive source for the 25 years of PLRA case law. Written by John Boston, the co-author of the Prisoners’ Self-Help Litigation Manual—the Bible of self-represented prison litigation, the Handbook is breathtaking in its scope and encyclopedic in its attention to detail. It spans 543 pages, half of which are devoted to the chapter on exhaustion of administrative remedies, and includes 4,337 footnotes, many having citations to a dozen or more cases that include decision synopses. It’s an annotated roadmap on how to successfully navigate the PLRA.

“Prisoners have to jump over obstacles to litigate,” said one experienced pro se prisoner litigant at the Ramsey Unit, a state prison in Texas. “The manual tells them how high they have to jump.”

“It is freaking awesome and would have saved me six years of litigation,” he enthused. “The chapter titles are point-by-point the same hurdles that have caused me and are causing me delays in reaching my relief requested. Being a three-strikes prisoner, I am not deterred, and this Handbook has rejuvenated my drive for that relief and even given me ideas for standing on my claims through the Screening and Dismissal Provisions.”

Between its well-organized and highly-detailed table of contents and its alphabetical index, the Handbook uses plain language to explain the PLRA and includes exhaustive citations to decisions at all levels and from all regions of the federal judiciary, giving the reader comprehensive insight into the current state of PLRA interpretation. It is an essential addition to a prisoner-rights litigator’s library.

The Handbook is edited by Richard Resch, managing editor of Criminal Legal News

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