If you are currently incarcerated and believe your civil rights have been violated, you may be considering filing a lawsuit in federal court. Before you do, you should know about a federal law called the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), which affects your ability to sue the prison or prison officials for constitutional violations. In short, the law makes it harder for you to bring claims. Knowing what the PLRA requires will make a significant difference in making sure your claims get heard by a judge. 

The ACLU of Kansas has provided the documents at the bottom of this page to help inform incarcerated people of their rights and the requirements of the PLRA. 

The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) requires that incarcerated people exhaust all internal grievance procedures before filing a lawsuit challenging prison or jail conditions. Under PLRA, an individual may not be required to exhaust internal grievance procedures if they are no longer incarcerated. If the person is incarcerated in a different jail or prison, case law interpreting PLRA seems to hold that the individual must still exhaust the grievance procedures at the previous jail or prison before filing suit. If the individual is still incarcerated and they fail to exhaust internal prison or jail grievance procedures, any lawsuit they may file challenging conditions of incarceration will almost certainly be dismissed by the court. 

Second, if an incarcerated person files suit challenging conditions of incarceration, that individual should understand that a statute of limitations applies to such lawsuits. Because the specific statute of limitations varies depending on the state in which an individual files suit and the claims raised in the lawsuit, we cannot provide advice about what statute of limitations applies to a particular case. But we can say that – if the incarcerated person fails to file a timely suit – the individual’s claims may be barred by the applicable statute of limitations. So, the incarcerated individual should not delay in finding a lawyer and in filing suit.

The Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the government from subjecting inmates serving sentences to cruel and unusual punishment. The Fourth Amendment protects similar rights of pretrial detainees. The Supreme Court has held that jails and prisons violate the Constitution when they are deliberately indifferent to the serious medical needs of prisoners. In order to establish a claim of deliberate indifference, an inmate must prove (1) that he had a serious medical need, (2) that the people being sued knew of that need, (3) that those people intentionally or deliberately failed to provide required treatment for that need, and (4) that such deliberate indifference caused the inmate to suffer unneeded pain and suffering or similar harm. The cases on deliberate indifference clearly hold that the fact that a different doctor would have prescribed different treatment is not sufficient to show deliberate indifference. Furthermore, the cases also hold that negligent delays in providing treatment are generally insufficient to prove deliberate indifference. In other words, deliberate indifference is very difficult to prove and sets a very low bar for jail and prison officials to meet.

An excellent and free online resource regarding jail/prison conditions litigation is A Jailhouse Lawyer’s Manual, available at www.jailhouselaw.org and the Prisoners’ Self-Help Litigation Manual (Fourth Edition 2010), which can be purchased online.