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John Boston, The PLRA Handbook: Law and Practice Under the Prison Litigation Reform Act

Reviewed by Michael B. Mushlin, Professor of Law, Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University

The PLRA Handbook is an essential indispensable resource for anyone who is planning to file a prisoners’ rights case in federal court. The subject of the book, the Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”), now 26 years old, presents formidable barriers to the success of any prisoner’s rights case. In the quarter of a century and more that this harsh and unnecessary law has been on the books, it has inflicted enormous harm. Every lawyer practicing in this field must deal with it. Directly targeting prisoners, the legislation creates a complicated maze loaded with traps in order to derail even the worthiest cases. This Byzantine law containing dozens of restrictions, any one of which can easily derail a prisoner’s claim, has generated an enormous body of difficult to understand law. To date the law has been cited 63,596 times by district courts, 1,096 times by the federal courts of appeals, and 3,324 times by law review authors.

Under the PLRA if you have not exhausted the prison’s administrative appeal system (a complicated question), you will be summarily tossed out of court regardless of whether or not your claim is meritorious. If your constitutional rights have been violated but the degrading treatment to which you are subjected didn’t cause you physical injury, you too may be thrown out of court (whether you will is another complicated question), even though a similar claim by a non-prisoner would be allowed to proceed. And if you have filed three previous suits that were dismissed even for technical reasons, then the courthouse door is closed to you for all the time you are incarcerated absent limited exceptions (a third complicated question). In such a situation the PLRA prevents the new lawsuit without regard to its merit, unless you are the rare prisoner who can afford the expensive filing fee.

The PLRA in operation kicks out of court scores of prison cases whether or not they are meritorious, merely because the prisoner fails to comply with any one of the many technicalities of the statute. No other group of litigants is singled out for such harsh treatment. Yet, ironically, no other group of persons is more in need of judicial protection. More than any other group the incarcerated depend on the courts for the defense of their fundamental rights. Prisoners lack political power, are overwhelmingly poor, and are drawn from communities that struggle economically. And the state exercises almost total control over prisoners. Because of these facts, the reality is that rather than enact the PLRA, Congress should pass laws that do the opposite. Despite its insidious nature, however, there is little chance in the current political environment that the law will be repealed any time soon. The best we can hope for is to have an expert guide to take prisoners and their lawyers through the minefield created by the PLRA. With The PLRA Handbook: Law and Practice Under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, written by John Boston, thankfully we now do.

No one understands the PLRA better than John Boston; nobody is even close. John Boston not only has encyclopedic knowledge of prison law, but he is also a brilliant analyst whose work has been recognized by leading academics and cited as authoritative by courts. In addition, Mr. Boston is one of the nation’s premiere prison litigators having served in his distinguished career as staff attorney and the Project Director of the Prisoners’ Rights Project of the New York City Legal Aid Society. Thus, he brings to this task not only his brilliance as a scholar, but also his deep knowledge and wisdom as a practicing lawyer who has confronted the PLRA in his representation of thousands of incarcerated people seeking vindication of their rights in court.

With this deep knowledge and impressive skill, Mr. Boston has produced a book which provides a comprehensive roadmap about how to avoid dismissal for failure to comply with the Act. This 576 page book is divided into twelve chapters. Each chapter is devoted to a discrete part of the PLRA, gives an overview of each of the many provisions of this intricate law, and then for each of these segments provides details that are essential for any litigator about how the federal courts in each federal circuit have interpreted and applied that portion of the PLRA. In each chapter, for each of the many provisions of the law, Mr. Boston provides a detailed, but easily understood, and clear analysis of what the provision is, and what the case law interpreting it is. This arms a prison litigator who consults this invaluable book with essential information about how to best position the case to avoid the hazard that the PLRA creates.

One example of this method is Chapter IV “The Physical Injury Requirement.” In that chapter, dealing with the so called “physical injury” provision of the law, Mr. Boston skillfully unpacks a provision of the PLRA containing in Mr. Boston’s memorable language “the highest concentration of poor drafting in the smallest number of words in the entire United States Code.” Mr. Boston then spends the next 50 pages carefully analyzing the provision, examining statutes and commentary from as distant a time as the 19th century, to provide a coherent theory about how the statute should be interpreted so as to permit lawsuits for harm from violations of constitutional rights that do not depend in any way on proving physical injury. In his analysis Mr. Boston provides a nuanced explanation about how the provision has been interpreted in each federal circuit, and also how the law has been interpreted in all of the many factual contexts in which the issue arises. This chapter gives advocates a detailed understanding about how to make arguments to courts to avoid the dangers posed by the act. Here, as throughout the book, where provisions of the PLRA have not yet been interpreted, or where there are splits in the circuits, the book also gives powerful reasons for resolving issues in the manner that Mr. Boston proposes. This kind of high-level expert writing and analysis is found in every chapter and on every page of this book.

With The PLRA Handbook, litigators have the best protection possible to avoid the pitfalls that the PLRA puts in the way of vindication of prisoners’ rights. Without it they would deprive themselves of a vital aid. Having this book at your right hand is not just a good thing; it is crucial. The book is published by the Human Rights Defense Center. Cost is $224.99 for attorneys and institutions and $84.99 for prisoners.

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