Recently I was contacted by the wife of an inmate about his poor medical care. He is currently in a state prison. She wanted to interest a legal firm in taking on the case and was wondering what information she would need to gather. One of the first things I asked was about the actions her husband had already taken to remedy the situation. For example, had he already requested treatments through the normal sick call process or submitted grievances about his medical care?
Legal recourse is a common place to go when inmates are not receiving needed healthcare. A 205 survey sited in this article found medical care to be the number one litigation topic in both jails and prisons.
The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) was passed in 1996 to require preliminary actions before a legal claim is heard by the court. This legislation was originally proposed to limit frivolous inmate lawsuits regarding their conditions of confinement and is limited to civil cases (not medical malpractice). See an earlier post on Section 1983 (Civil Rights) cases.
Key Points of PLRA
- Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies – An inmate must first use the internal grievance system to the full extent (including any appeals process) before taking legal action on a claim
- Mental or Emotional Injury – cannot be claimed without first showing physical injury
- Screening and Dismissal – PLRA allows a case to be screened by the court and dismissed as frivolous even before the defense is required to reply.
- Three-Strikes Clause – Upfront filing fees are generally waived or greatly decreased for inmates due to poverty. However, after three prior lawsuits dismissed as “frivolous, malicious, or failing to state a claim for relief”, this waiver is exhausted. Further filings will require the full fee be paid upfront.
The number of lawsuits filed by inmates greatly increased from 1970 to 1995. More than 40,000 inmate claims clogged the legal system in 1995. The PLRA aimed to reduce frivolous and unnecessary inmate lawsuits by creating some boundaries on the types and frequency of legal claims. Lawsuits filed by inmates have been reduced to around 25,000 per year.
What has been your experience with PRLA? Do you think it is a good idea?